Collective Delusion

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AN UNLIKELY COINCIDENCE

“What’s the book about?” asked friends while preparing Be Still! for publication. I would scratch my head and answered as best I could: “It’s about a certain kind of calm and resistance in a world gone mad.” The release of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, through no intention of the publisher or the author, coincided with the inauguration of a new president (January 2017).

QUIET! BE STILL!

The title “Be Still!” is taken from Psalm 46 — “Be still, and know that I am God” — and from the Gospel according to Mark story of the command to the storm-tossed sea: “Quiet! Be still!” Both the psalm and “the stilling of the storm” address our plight — the mass dehumanization which Holocaust surviver Elie Wiesel called “collective madness”.

How to explain the Holocaust is a life-long question for my generation. Elie Wiesel‘s “collective madness” comes as close as any other to the daunting question of why the German people fell for a madman and stayed quiet.

COLLECTIVE SELF-DELUSION

[F]ew Germans after the war would confess having given any loyalty to the Nazi movement. This was not a lie in the soul of the German nation; it was a part of a collective delusion that all the fascist movements brought upon their followings. It was as if the movements themselves, as things independent of the men that embodied them, were responsible for the things that happened.

Gilbert Allardyce, The Place of Fascism in European History (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971)

SOMEDAY THEY WILL SAY, “WE DID NOT KNOW”

Well-publicized among Germans, already before Hitler came to power and during a period when he still depended on their consent rather than coercion, were the many actual deeds of butchery…. Some day the same Germans, now cheering Hitler’s strut into Paris, will say to their American friends and to their brave German anti-Nazi friends: “We did not know what went on, we did not know” and when that day of know-nothing comes, there will be laughter in hell.

Peter Viereck, German-American Scholar, Metapolitics: The Roots of the Nazi Mind, rev. ed. (1941; New York: Capricorn, 1965), 318

PRINCIPALITIES AND POWERS

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

Epistle to the Ephesians 6:12 (KJV)

The language of the Bible regarding principalities – the ruling authorities, the angelic powers, the demons, and the like – sounds, I suppose, strange in modern society, but these words in fact refer to familiar realities in contemporary life. The principalities refer to those entities in creation which nowadays are called institutions, ideologies, and images. Thus a nation is a principality. Or the Communist ideology is a principality. Or the public image of a human being, say a movie star or a politician, is a principality. The image or legend of Marilyn Monroe or Franklin Roosevelt is a reality, distinguishable from the person bearing the same name, which survives and has its own existence apart from the existence of the person.

William Stringfellow, Instead of Death (Expanded version)

THIRTY-THREE MONTHS AND COUNTING

Thirty-three months after the release of Be Still!, many of my generation hear echos from 1933. Though the “enemies” are different, the tactics and the language of national purification are the same, defying rational explanation. The principalities and powers which survive have their own existence apart from the persons who come under the spell of collective delusion and collective madness.

DISARMING THE PRINCIPALITIES AND POWERS

We humans are social creatures. but we are do not do well when herds become the substitute for self-critical community. The still, small Voice is heard away from the clamor. The life of a nation and every other principality and power is a spiritual matter before and after it is a political matter.

“Be still! Shut up! and know that I am God. I am exalted among the nations” (Psalm 46).

Elijah’s face

Elijah calm

Five day old Elijah

Looking at the contentment on Elijah’s face, do you suppose he’s already read grandpa’s Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness or has memorized grandpa’s favorite psalm, Psalm 46? I wish I could be this calm, this cool, this collected, this still.

God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.
 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
    though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
    though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble with its tumult.Selah

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
    God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
    he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
    see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
    he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God!
    I am exalted among the nations,
    I am exalted in the earth.”
 The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

[Psalm 46, NRSV]

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 26, 2017

Stop it!

How one translates a language into another often poses challenges.

Take Psalm 46:10, for example. The original Hebrew text is usually translated into English as “Be still.”

But what does it mean to “be still”?

Stop moving? Stay put? Be calm? Get yourself together?

Hebrew Bible scholar Artur Weiser offered an altogether different translation” “Leave off!” — a command, like “STOP IT!” — spoken by the Holy One described in the preceding line as the God “who makes wars to cease to the end of the earth, who breaks the bow and shatters the spear, who burns the shields with fire” (Ps. 46:9).

“Leave off (i.e, quit your war-making), and know that I am God. I am exalted among the nations. I am exalted in the earth!” – Artur Weiser, The Psalms: a Commentary,  originally published in German as Die Psalmen. The English translation by Herbert Hartwell was published by Westminster Press in 1962. So “leave off” is an English translation of a German translation of a Hebrew psalm. Parenthesis added to Hartwell’s translation of Weiser’s translation by GCS for purposes of emphasis and clarity.

Psalm 46 is called “the Refuge Psalm” because of how it begins – “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” – and ends – “the God of Jacob is our refuge.” But this God of refuge commands action, not quiescence, against militarism, violence, and war.

“Leave off! Stop it!”

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 9, 2017.