Generational trauma and knowing who your real enemy is, it's all about the blood
I wrote this only days before the horrific attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which 49 people, children, adults, elders, were murdered in a terrorist attack, after the ongoing attack of Ilhan Omar because of words she named about the state of Israel. What I am writing about here is real. It is real in the way of leading to violence in its most physical form. I hold my prayers for those killed in Christchurch and for those murdered, generation after generation, because of what is written here. This is not just a history lesson. ----- There is a line that keeps running through my head. It’s from the Hunger Games, when Finnick tells Katniss, who feels the chaos of not knowing who to trust, of not knowing who started what kind of violence and how she can feel safe, “Katniss”, Finnick says, “remember who the real enemy is.”
I was angry - and confused - for a lot of years about who my real enemy was. What happens when the people who love you, who are there to take care of you and protect you from when you are very small, don’t do that? What do you do with the chaos when the kin who are supposed to be in it with you actually cause even more harm? I picked leaving home, moving far away from my people, calling them out from a distance while creating new stories about why things turned out the way they did. I chose a whole bunch of space and time to figure out how to make sense of the chaos so that I could come home again. And after a time, the real enemy started to become clear. There is a lot of chaos and call-out happening over Representative Ilhan Omar’s critique of the state of Israel. The responses to Representative Omar, and the responses to the responses, carry deep pain and anger. Reactions and then the reactions to the reactions are emotional, some are overly rational and many are dangerous, using the weapons of Islamophobia, anti-Black racism, indigenous disappearance and anti-Semitism with some misogyny and sexism thrown in to build a case. This level of reactivity, of intense response, means that this moment is not about the present moment. It is not about an act of physical violence, of flesh harming flesh. These reactions are to words. The intensity of these reactions are a demonstration of the impact of generational trauma.
Somewhere, there is an original wound. When violence and other forms of held trauma do not have the space to heal and integrate, then they are passed forward. Somewhere is the shape of violent disregard so intense that, generation after generation, it has moved forward as culture, as protection, as surveillance, as pain. Within the cycle of violence, all players evolve protections in order to survive. We develop protections around how we have been harmed and how we have caused harm. And then over time those protections become culture or community practice and their origins become invisible.
Chaos theory says that if we stand back far enough, there is always a pattern to emerge. Chaos is rarely chaos; we’re just in the middle of too much information without a sense of how it’s all connected to each other. Chaos is how systems of supremacy unsettle resistance. When you combine chaos with the triggering of deep fears about your ability to be ok, to survive, to be safe, then it becomes almost impossible to step away from the pattern and see clearly. Healing from deeply held trauma needs space and enough safety for the body to move through something vulnerable. State violence and surveillance and internalized violence and surveillance prevent this space and safety from emerging.
Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, indigenous disappearance and anti-Black racism would not exist if it weren’t for the violence that, over generations, emerged as the twinning of Christian supremacy and capitalism. White supremacy wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the twinning of Christian supremacy and capitalism, two belief systems that evolved at the same time.
In the 4th century, Emperor Constantine* converted to Christianity, turning the machinations of the Roman empire into a tool for two things: grabbing land and other wealth AND converting everyone in its path to Christianity. As part of this, in 318 Constantine brought a whole bunch of Christian bishops to a meeting to create the rules of Christianity (called the Nicene Creed). Before this, Christianity was a mixed bag of belief systems including both highly patriarchal structures and highly matriarchal structures, including communities that resembled Buddhist monasteries, communities that believed in sexual pleasure as an expression of God’s divine love, communities that were still predominantly Jewish with a few changes in tradition, and more. The Nicene Creed named Christianity as the single true belief system. Over a period of generations, the pre-Christian beliefs of Rome were wiped out, sometimes violently and sometimes by conversion.
Anti-Semitism grew in shape and practice along with the growth of the Christian church, its violence waxing and waning, shifting shape and practice, but never disappearing for all of Christianity’s 2000 plus years**.
Originating in European Christianity, antisemitism is the form of ideological oppression that targets Jews. In Europe and the United States, it has functioned to protect the prevailing economic system and the almost exclusively Christian ruling class by diverting blame for hardship onto Jews. Like all oppressions, it has deep historical roots and uses exploitation, marginalization, discrimination and violence as its tools. Like all oppressions, the ideology contains elements of dehumanization and degradation via lies and stereotypes about Jews, as well as a mythology. The myth changes and adapts to different times and places, but fundamentally it says that Jews are to blame for society’s problems. From Understanding Anti-Semitism.
The political growth of the Catholic church has depended on the tools of anti-Semitism to grow its own wealth. The history of anti-Semitism is the history of Christianity evolving an idea of “pure blood” and dangerous blood, of good and bad as essential qualities of a person rather than a type of behavior. These ideologies of dangerous and pure blood could then justify actions that otherwise go deeply against Christian values of life and forgiveness, of community and radical love; go against those values while seeming to stay in alignment with the same values. This ideology evolved along with the Christian idea that being closer to God means transcending or leaving the body. The body becomes a site of control and good bodies go to heaven while bad bodies are dangerous and must be controlled. Histories of blood sacrifice and transcendence as a part of spiritual life are almost universal, with traditions found on every continent. The development of the political Christian church used these practices as a tool for justifying the accumulation of resources through the destruction of other people, cultures and communities. This is not the only time that this has happened. This is what happened that led to our present moment.
In the middle ages, the Roman Catholic Church employed soldiers through the Crusades or what was called the Holy wars. The Crusades especially targeted those lands of the Eastern Mediterranean, where Islam was a growing spiritual and political force. For reasons of religious conversion, in order to bring alliance among different Christian factions, and for wealth accumulation, the Crusades strengthened the idea of the Pope as the head of the Catholic church and normalized militarism as a part of religious practice. Jewish communities, “heretical” Christian communities, pagan communities and Islamic communities were attacked or often destroyed. The boundaries of the political-religious western Christian world were defined as a result of the Crusades and the political wealth of the Christian church was strengthened. Orientalism, as named by Edward Said, was the justification narrative that allowed this stage of western colonization to expand while, again, maintaining Christian Europe’s sense of living in alignment with its own values.
The sense of Islam as a threatening Other - with Muslims depicted as fanatical, violent, lustful, irrational - develops during the colonial period in what I called Orientalism. The study of the Other has a lot to do with the control and dominance of Europe and the West generally in the Islamic world. And it has persisted because it's based very, very deeply in religious roots, where Islam is seen as a kind of competitor of Christianity. Edward Said in Orientalism.
Christian supremacy continued to grow, changing shape and practice depending on the country and historical moment. When the British government began to colonize the lands of the Americas, joining other European countries in the use of the institution of slavery and indigenous destruction as the primary policies of wealth accumulation, it grafted the idea of pure and dangerous blood on to the bodies of those it was targeting. This same strategy of justifying some bodies as bad and some bodies as good enabled the British and then later US governments to continue to build wealth off the bodies and lands of indigenous and Black people while still believing it lived its Christian values. The invention of the one drop rule meant that one drop of "Black blood" made you Black and therefore controllable by white supremacy whereas Blood quantum meant that you had to have a specific amount of "indigenous blood" in order to count as Native and therefore be recognized by signed treaties. Blood rules helped define strategies of surveillance used in times of war to contain the bodies of those who resisted: reservations, prisons, and then, over time, the cultural practices of educational systems, healthcare systems, and all other methods for disseminating culture. At the same time, religious practice became increasingly focused on transcendent practices, a sense of leaving the body to find relationship with God, of becoming pure Spirit, a sanctified dissociation that also supported those causing harm to not feel, in that most physical of senses, the impact of their actions.
In the early 20th century, independence movements in lands colonized by western Europe began to surge forward and an increasing western need for oil merged together. The same essentializing idea of pure and dangerous were now directed towards Islam, justifying Western war mentality by calling the Islamic world and Arab countries barbarous, cultures in need of ‘civilizing.’ The Western cultural practice of orientalism created fertile ground for the violence of Islamophobia. This became heightened as a result of 9-11 and once again, trauma repeated itself. Christian fear swelled and the need to offset that terror on a clear enemy turned into the rapidly evolving practices of Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism.
Anti-Semitism, anti-Black racism, indigenous disappearance, and Islamophobia are all manifestations of the same early trauma and override: the desire for wealth accumulation, the violent taking of lands and resources and bodies to accumulate that wealth, and a need to feel in alignment with deeply held Christian values. They all depend on this idea that some blood/people are dangerous and not quite human while others are pure and that it is possible to do great violence and still be a good Christian. Andrea Smith powerfully names this history in her piece, Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy.
Christianity also evolved in European owning class communities to support a dissociation from the physical body and an essentializing of bodies that are “different” as needing to be controlled or dismissed. When Constantine paid for the construction of a singular unforgiving Christian doctrine that was then used to justify the expansion of Empire, he took a grassroots belief system that centered the ending of poverty and radical love and turned it into a tool of violence. Western Europe used that legacy for the development and then expansion of market capitalism. You could not have capitalism without Christianity and you could not have the spread of Christianity without capitalism.
Systems of belief have protective survival responses. They are held in the nervous systems of all of those who have been raised within those systems of belief, both the perpetrators and those who are harmed. In moments like this, I see multigenerational systems as having a kind of energetic form, their hands holding the marionette strings and making us dance. We lost a lot in the scientific world when we stopped talking about evil spirits. Sometimes I think it’s the only way to make visual the way these multigenerational patterns live through us, forcing so many of us to be agents of their harm even as we seek to destroy them.
What is happening right now is painful. And it carries with it a whole range of individual and collective experiences that have taken place since the expansion of the Roman empire and probably before. Without transformation, the cycle of violence always moves forward and those who have been harmed, too often, become those who carry the harm forward. Shifting the complex paths of pain that are twisting so tightly in the conversations and reactions swirling around Representative Omar’s comments is about more than remembering history. But remembering history is deeply important. This mess started somewhere.
All of my family lines are Catholic with the majority of them being Catholic as far back as can be remembered and with some of us Catholic through forced conversion within recent generations. Some of my ancestral lines represent the people who were also first colonized by the Roman Empire and who then became the ones to benefit from and move forward that wheel of violence. I assume and sometimes know that somewhere in my histories are people who supported or benefitted from anti-Semitism, the Crusades, the stealing of land, and the enslavement of free bodies. As is true with all empires, most of my people were living their lives, using their Church as the place to support their grief and family transitions. They were not thinking about strategies for wealth accumulation and that wealth rarely trickled down to their families and kin. And as is true with all empires, each and every one of us is still, in some responsible for the repair. It’s about time that energy and pain that is wound around and between those hurt by and raging against Representative Omar turn around and direct that energy towards us. Sometimes you have to look far enough back across the space of history to begin to see a pattern in the tangled mess of the present moment. Sometimes you have to look far enough back to understand why those who seem to be causing you harm are, themselves, stuck with you in a pattern of pain. In my own family, this meant looking for enough back to find the common thread that causes some of us to turn to our own kin and hoist our hurt on each other’s bodies rather than come together to fight against the violence that has become woven through our lineage.
In the midst of chaos and generations of pain, it’s important to know who your real enemy is, your original enemy, the one who continues to benefit, especially when those who were first hurt are overwhelmed with chaos and striking against each other rather than turning to the ones who first set the violence in motion.
* Violence begets violence. So why start with Constantine when there must have been a before? Did Constantine’s class/mixed upbringing, his witness of the Great Persecution in which state policy was to destroy all Christians, a literal genocide, before Constantine came to power and shifted state policy to use Christianity as a means to an end? And then what was the before for that? ** The political Church is not always the same as what regular folks do on the day to day. While there have always been people who have used the political Church to further their own ends and to cause harm to others, many people truly seek to be faithful and to follow the values they believe in.