If There is to Be Peace: Peace in the Nations by Rev. Anthony Makar
The African tribe of Yoruba likes to tell this ancient story about its trickster God Eshu:
One day Eshu began a journey wearing a hat, red on one side, white on the other. Making not a sound he walked between two friends, one seeing the white side of his hat, the other seeing the red.
Later in the day the two friends spoke to one another about the mysterious man in the hat. Immediately, they began to argue about the color of the hat. White! Red! The quarreling turned to blows, as each man professed to know the right answer and demanded to be acknowledged as the victor in the violent discussion.
The Trickster Eshu chuckled at the sight and walked over to the men, now bloodied and angry, and showed them his hat – red on one side and white on the other. He was delighted by the fact they would fight about something as ridiculous as the color of another man’s hat, ruining their long-standing friendship in the process. Taking pleasure in testing the strengths and weaknesses of mankind, he provides the lesson of making the right choices in life.
Eshu can see in all directions, watches what people do, good and bad. His punishment is swift but he is also kind.
Eshu is found at the crossroads.
That’s the ancient story.
And if I were to modernize it, to speak specifically to current issues of concern, I would change it to read as follows:
One day Eshu began a journey wearing a hat, and this hat was fully covered with a special HDTV screen that projected crystal clear images of three of the most pressing issues of our time: mass immigration, cultural modernization, and globalization. Making not a sound, he walked between two friends, who saw images flashing on the screen-covered hat: one was of a caravan of Central American migrants approaching the United States; another was of LGBTQ United Methodist pastors and empowered women like U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; and a third was of factories in the U.S. closing down and reopening in China.
Images like that, beaming off of Eshu’s hat. The two friends spoke to one another about what they saw, and immediately, the arguments began. One friend, who could be called a right-wing populist, or an authoritarian nationalist, was deeply offended. For him, there could be no loyalty beyond that of the law and will of his nation, which was embodied in the land’s Great Leader. And here’s what the Great Leader said: that immigrants were an infestation upon the land and national racial purity needed to be upheld; historically marginalized identities pursuing their rights needed to stop being so uppity and get back to the way it was; and cooperation with other nations is weakness, while strength is going it alone.
That’s what the Great Leader said.
All of which made the other friend shout out in fury and frustration. “What your Great Leader says is wrong! What you take to be the worst of evils is not so, but cause for rejoicing!” For this friend, upon seeing images of migrants, understood the traumas that would lead families to undertake the dangerous journey to a new land and into a new life, and affirmed their right to pursue happiness and wholeness. Furthermore, he knew that multiculturalism was the strength of a people, not a weakness.
As for the images of LGBTQ United Methodist pastors and empowered women like U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, he found himself inspired by their persistence and courage. Since he was a straight white male, he searched himself for ways he might use his privilege to further support all historically marginalized communities in their growth towards equality and justice.
And as for that image of factories closing down in the U.S. and reopening in China—that image of globalization and one of its impacts—of course he rued the local consequences of the loss of jobs and was led to wonder about whether global trade could be better regulated. But then he flashed upon another dimension of globalization, which has to do with problems that do not obey national borders, problems that require solutions which are international in scope. Problems like climate change. Problems like mass migration!
Let us call this second friend a cosmopolitan, as opposed to a right-wing populist/ authoritarian nationalist. As a cosmopolitan, he embraces loyalty to his country but also feels loyalty to the world as a whole. He knows, furthermore, that the laws of a land may be out of sync with what is good and right, and whenever any Great Leader passes a law that violates human rights, that law is to be resisted.
This is how the two friends differed, why they responded as they did to Eshu’s hat, and why it led to them fighting.
The Trickster Eshu chuckled at the sight and walked over to the men. He took off his hat and reached inside it—and pulled out an article from The Atlanticon the topic of the “behavioral immune system.” The two friends looked confusedly at Eshu, wondering what on earth that had to do with anything.
Eshu said, “Just listen and learn.”
Quoting the article’s author Kathleen McAuliffe, he said, “As we move about in the world, a sizable volume of research shows, our minds are constantly searching our surroundings for contaminants—moldy leftovers, garbage spilling out of trash cans, a leaky sewage pipe—and when the brain detects them, it triggers sudden feelings of revulsion. Confronted, we withdraw from the threat. The mechanism is part of what’s known as the ‘behavioral immune system,’ and it is as vital for survival as the fight-or-flight response.”
Eshu went on to develop this line of thought. That, for purposes of safety and survival, evolution gives people a “germ radar” that constantly scans the environment for contaminants, and the resulting feeling of disgust is a message saying, It’s a threat, stay away, danger, it could hurt you.
But then main thing he wanted the two friends to see is how all this lines up with political affiliation. With one of them being a conservative, right-wing populist type and the other being a liberal, cosmopolitan type.
To this end, Eshu mentioned two things.
One was how science shows that conservatives tend to have higher levels of sensitivity to disgust than liberals. Neuroscientist Read Montague once hooked 83 subjects up to an MRI to scan their brains as they looked at a variety of subjects. It turned out that the brains of liberals and conservatives reacted similarly to violent images and to pleasant images. But when pictures of repulsive things were shown, the reaction of conservative brains was off the charts, while the reaction of liberal brains was much milder.
Dr. Montague was able to predict with 95% accuracy whether the person whose brain he was scanning was politically liberal or conservative.
The second thing Eshu mentioned was that the behavioral immune system tends to go overboard. He quoted Kathleen McAuliffe again, on how our behavioral immune system “is error-prone in flagging danger—it produces a lot of false positives. Any physical oddity displayed by the people around us—contagious or not—can set off an alarm. Just as a pink eye, a hacking cough, or an open wound may activate our behavioral immune system, so too can a birthmark, obesity, deformity, disability, or even liver spots. Furthermore, having germs on our mind can affect how we feel about people we perceive to be of a different race or ethnicity from ourselves.”
“In other words,” said Eshu to the two friends, “your behavioral immune system likes to exaggerate, so that what is merely odd or different can trigger full-blown disgust. And this propensity to exaggerate only increases in proportion to how sensitive a person might be.”
That’s when the liberal friend triumphantly cried out, “Aha!” Turning to his conservative friend, he cried out, “No wonder you got so upset at that Super Bowl ad from back in 2014 which featured immigrants singing different stanzas of America the Beautiful in their native tongues. I remember how grossed out you were by that, and how you insisted that that song should be sung only in English.”
“No wonder! No wonder you’re feeling so threatened by gains in real equality for LGBTQ people, people of color, the disabled, the poor, and for other historically marginalized communities.”
“No wonder, too, that you feel so hostile and so cynical about loyalty to global wellbeing and cooperation with other nations to solve world problems.”
“No wonder!” said the more liberal, cosmopolitan friend, as if that solved everything.
At which point the more conservative, right-wing populist type, shot back with, “Two can play at this game! No wonder, no wonder, that liberals like you could be so clueless and naive, so oblivious to the dangers that multiculturalism and justice movements for marginalized identities and globalization represent. No wonder!”
For a moment, the two friends just glared at each other.
And then Eshu signaled them to stop.
With a voice as solemn as a judge, he said, “I am the Trickster God, and I take pleasure in testing the strengths and weaknesses of people like you. And both of you are found wanting.”
“What?” said the liberal, cosmopolitan friend. “But right is on my side. There is no middle ground between affirming human rights and denying them! There is nothing admirable or honorable on the side of a Great Leader who uses words for animals and rodents like ‘infest’ to describe people—a word, I will add, that was often used in Rwanda during genocide, comparing people to roaches.”
“I agree,” said the Trickster God. “I agree. But where you lack is in your sense of compassion. Your conservative, right-wing populist friend is, by nature, more sensitive than you to that which disgusts. Combine that with how the behavioral immune system tends to exaggerate mere oddities and differences into full-blown threats, and what you have is someone who is peculiarly vulnerable to being manipulated by Great Leader bullies.”
“Listen to me. I am the Trickster God, but the Great Leaders of this world—the Trumps, the Putins, the Erdogans, the Orbans, the Dudas—all the right-wing populist demagogues, they outdo even me in their trickery. Just listen to a list of some of their tactics, as described by writer Doug Muder:
They define foes rather than formulate policies.
They create unending crises and struggle, and the less factual the struggle, the easier it is to maintain. A real struggle might come to some conclusion, but an entirely made-up one never will.
So, for example, the millions of illegal voters who decide American elections—they can’t be stopped, because they’re not real. The struggle against them will go on forever. Democrats can never stop trying to take your guns, because they weren’t trying to take your guns in the first place. The War on Christmas will come back every year, regardless of anything the faithful might do to defend themselves.
People believe these narratives because they are emotionally satisfying, not because they are factual.
The point [for the Great Leader] is not to win a rational argument, but to make rational argument impossible.
Authoritarianism arrives not because people say that they want it, but because they lose the ability to distinguish between facts and desires.
Saying all this, Eshu fell silent. Then he looked into the liberal, cosmopolitan friend’s eyes and said, with sadness, “Your conservative, right-wing friend is in a perpetual state of trauma, stoked by the Great Leader, and traumatized people spread the trauma, terrorized people spread terror.”
“In your compassion, you must get to the root of the thing, which is a constant feeling of fear and unsafety.”
“Help your friend feel more safe, and maybe a better path can open up for both of you.”
At this point, Eshu the Trickster God turned to the conservative, right-wing populist friend. “As for you,” he said, “your failure is in succumbing to the emotional satisfactions of the Great Leader’s hateful performances, his outrageous conspiracy theories, all the tweets, all the drama that he generates. Science tells us that you are uniquely susceptible to fear-mongering, but both science and religion also say that you are a human being with free will, and your biology cannot compel you to indulge in being terrorized and nor can it compel you to commit atrocities for the so-called good of your country.
“You must get away from the hate-based, fear-based messages even as they light up your nervous system and give you a kind of emotional high. Terrible though it may be, it’s still a high. Give up your addiction to that, before evil swallows you whole.”
“There is a book you must read,” continued Eshu, the Trickster God. “It’s by Rabindranath Tagore and it’s called The Home and the World. In that book, the young wife Bimala is entranced by the dramatic right-wing rhetoric of her husband’s friend Sandip, and she becomes an eager follower of a nationalist movement to boycott foreign goods.
“Bimala complains that her husband, the cosmopolitan Hindu landlord Nikhil, is not very sympathetic towards the right-wing movement, but now listen to what he has to say about it all: ‘I am willing to serve my country; but my worship I reserve for Right which is far greater than my country. To worship my country as a god is to bring a curse upon it.’”
And with this, Eshu picks up his hat, puts it on his head, walks away from the village, and is gone.
The friends look at each other in shock, they come together, and, together, they walk slowly and thoughtfully back to the village.
And that is the modernized version of the old Eshu story.
Modernized to speak to some of the urgent particulars of our day.
As in ancient times, so now, Eshu can see in all directions, watches what people do, good and bad. His punishment is swift but he is also kind.
It is said he is found at the crossroads, and that is where we are today.
In a time of polarization—world-wide, and close to home—, when urgencies abound, and lives are at stake, may we find a sane way through, to peace, and may Eshu smile upon us.