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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

Old Testament Genocide and Hell (p. 48)

From chapter "Cultural Eyeglasses"

The monotony of our culture’s genocidal impulse extends not only across space, but also through time; the God of our culture has always been jealous, and whether going by the name of God the Father, Yahweh, Jesus Christ, Civilization, Capitalism, Science, Technology, Profit, or Progress, He has never been less than eager to destroy all those He cannot control.

The Old Testament seems at times little more than a glorification of this genocide. I open to Numbers, and read, “If thou wilt indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.” I turn a few pages and read again, “And the Lord our God delivered him [Sihon] before us; and we smote him, and his sons, and all his people.” A few pages later: “And when the Lord thy God shall deliver them before thee: thou shalt smite them; andutterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them …”. It never stops.

Follow the rise of civilization, and necessarily you follow the outward path of an expanding circle of death, from the destruction of the barbarians of northern Greece to the rape of the Sabines, from the eradication of Europe’s indigenous peoples to the enslavement of Africans, from the conquest of the New World to the intentional introduction of syphilis to the Pacific Islands. The story is the same. The murder of men, women, and children.

Think for a moment about the toddler shot in the aftermath of Sand Creek—”Let me try the son of a bbitch. I can hit him.” Multiply this child by a million, and place him in the once-forested hills of the Middle East, the once-forested hills of northern Greece, the once-forested hills of north Africa, place him anywhere on the globe, and you will see him being murdered to serve our God: “Some Christians encounter an Indian woman, who was carrying in her arms a child at suck; and since the dog they had with them was hungry, they tore the child from the mother’s arms and flung it still living to the dog, who proceeded to devour it before the mother’s eyes.”

One more example among millions: “At about 1:00 p.m., the soldiers began to fire at the women inside the small church. The majority did not die there, but were separated from their children, taken to their homes in groups, and killed, the majority apparently with machetes. . . . Then they returned to kill the children, whom they had left crying and screaming by themselves, without their mothers. . . . The soldiers cut open the children’s stomachs with knives or they grabbed the children’s little legs and smashed their heads with heavy sticks.” This last example occurred in the 1980s. Troops equipped and trained with United States assistance took part in a systematic program that killed 10,000 people a year in Guatemala, and intentionally dispossessed more than 1,000,000 of that country’s 4,000,000 Indians.


Every morning when I wake up I ask myself whether I should write or blow up a dam. Every day I tell myself I should continue to write. Yet I’m not always convinced I’m making the right decision. I’ve written books and I’ve been an activist. At the same time I know neither a lack of words nor a lack of activism kills salmon here in the Northwest. It is the presence of dams.

Anyone who lives in this region and who knows anything about salmon knows the dams must go. And anyone who knows anything about politics knows the dams will probably stay. Scientists study, politicians and businesspeople lie and delay, bureaucrats hold sham public hearings, activists write letters and press releases, I write books and articles, and still the salmon die. It’s a cozy relationship for all of us but the salmon.

I don’t like it. I do not wish to merely describe the horrors that characterize our culture; I want to stop them. Sometimes it seems to me terribly self-indulgent to write, to shuffle magnetically-charged particles on a hard drive, when day after day it’s business as usual. Other times it seems even worse, as if the flow of words were not merely self-indulgent, but an act of avoidance. I could be blowing up dams. I could be destroying the equipment used to deforest our planet. I could be physically stopping perpetrators of abuse. How many social critics, I often wonder, how many writers, really want to stop the cycle, bring down this culture of death? How many have found a way to make a comfortable living while comforting themselves with beautiful descriptions of nature and the occasional outburst of righteous indignation?

The world is drowning in a sea of words, and I add to the deluge, then hope that I can sleep that night, secure in the knowledge that I have “done my part.” Sometimes I don’t know how we all live with ourselves. What can I say that will give sufficient honor to the dead, the extirpated, the beaten, the raped, the little children—”I can hit the son of a bitch. Let me try him”? I don’t know.

In the ten minutes I have stared at this computer screen, trying to fashion a conclusion to this section, more than sixty women have been beaten by their partners, and twelve children have been killed or injured by their parents or guardians. At least one species of plant or animal has been permanently eradicated from the face of Earth, and approximately a square mile of the planet has been deforested.

In the time it took me to write this last sentence, another woman was beaten by her lover.


My mother has often stated she wishes my father were dead. This seems reasonable to me, not only because of the pain he caused her and her children, but also because it would stop at its source the rolling wave of pain he leaves in his wake.

My own wish for him would be that he live in the full understanding of the damage he has caused. Better minds than my own have pointed out that this is the psychic meaning underlying the Christian notion of Hell. Remove Hell from its literal interpretation, which trivializes the profound psychic content in order to create yet one more means to control people (“Give up your land-based religion and accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior or you’ll roast in hell”), and what remains is precisely what those like my father—those who would destroy— lack, which is an honest appreciation of their actions. Another way to say this is that for someone who is destructive, for someone who is controlling, for someone who is civilized (and in more general terms, for anyone), Hell is the too-late realization that everything and everyone are interdependent. This realization is our only salvation.