Saturday, June 25, 2016

Barbarians at the Gate

 along a wilderness trail -

Much of the world was stunned yesterday as Britain voted to leave the European Union. For me, the vote to dissolve the relationship was yet one more frightening and disturbing icon of a new age of isolationism and rugged individualism sweeping across the globe, especially in “Western” civilizations.

“Securing borders,” building walls,” “fear of foreigners” – all part of the dynamic forces that drove Britain to tear away from the long-held union with other Europeans yesterday.  And indeed these are the very same issues that fuel a new isolationism in the United States nowadays, giving voice to new forms of fascism and racism as exhibited by the popularity of people like Donald Trump and his ilk. So many of us have withdrawn further and further behind the protective walls of our own familiar camps of like-minded individuals

Young vs old, rich vs. poor, Democrats vs. Republicans, poorly educated vs. university elites, natural citizens vs, immigrants, believers vs. atheists - at times these camps are like armed-fortresses,  and those who are “inside” the camp are quite convinced and certain that those outside have it wrong, that those on the outside deserve less and those on the inside deserve more.

As I examine the record of history, I think about ancient civilizations like Greece and Rome who built impenetrable walls around their cities to keep out the dangerous and undesirable “barbarians” from infiltrating their culture with their “unwashed” ways.

However, interestingly enough, the principal mark of any civilization is the degree to which members of the society are all willing to work together for the common good. When any nation turns away from this ideal and becomes a collective of individuals with their own personal agendas who ban together into opposing camps of like-minded others, it becomes a nation of barbarians rather than a civilization.

When I look at what is happening in Western civilization today I often wonder who  are the barbarians and who are the civilized people?  Are the barbarians outside the gates or has the civilization inside the walls evolved into a new form of 21st century barbarianism?

History teaches us that if we have become a culture of barbarians we are surely on a slippery slope.

Wendell Berry once wrote.

A society wishing to endure must speak the language of care-taking,
kindness, neighborliness and peace.

I am reminded of a story about civilized “White European” missionaries who traveled to Africa in order to convert the primitive, pagan, barbarians to the true Christian religion.  One of the missionaries decided to play a little game with a group of native children by placing a bowl of fruit under a tree, challenging them to a race - whoever got to the tree first would win all the fruit in the bowl.

As the race began, instead of running to the goal, the children mysteriously all joined hands with one another and gathered around the tree sharing the bowl of fruit. They simply had no idea of what it might mean to run against one another, no concept of how or why only one person would have it all while others looked on. In fact, the very way in which these children defined and understood themselves was not as competing individuals but as a sharing community.

The African word for “I am” is ubuntu. Actually in the Zulu language there is no word for “I am,” the word ubuntu is best translated as:

I am because you are

So many people in “civilized” societies like Europe and America today have fallen into the trap of deceiving themselves into thinking that we are an advanced and sophisticated civilization and that everyone else wants what we have. But, as I see it, when we withdraw into isolated camps and think we are better than others we are in fact very unsophisticated and “less than civilized,” in fact we are less than human.

On the day after the vote in Britain, as we witness yet yet another tear in the web of the fabric of global relationship, I am reminded of a poem written in the 17th century by John Donne, a prominent English poet. His words echo more true today than ever:

 No man is an island entire of itself,
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less…
Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.


  1. Brexit undid some of the reconciliation work done after World Wars I and II. It seems to be an attempt to go backwards to some mythical better age.

    1. One clip on the BBC News was of an old lady enthusing about going "back to the good old days". Presumably she's referring to the Britain of her childhood that faced the perils of rickets and Hitler!

  2. A beautiful piece of writing. And so very meaningful in today's world.

    1. Thanks Terri--let's all just keep putting out the good energy!

  3. I'm absolutely gutted that the majority of my fellow Britons voted to leave Europe. I just cannot understand it. It was clear that this was all about party leaders and their egos, false figures being bandied around, and outright scaremongering. I feel embarrassed actually to be English right now. As I too am tarred with the brush of wanting to close borders, to reject strong relationships with my neighbours, and not be willing to work together to find solutions for some of the worlds problems. We are a family, that has now been torn apart. Some of the newspapers here are singing out praise for the decision and it just makes me cringe. It's just bloody awful. The leave vote came in at 52%, they won by just a 4 % majority. Which means that 48% of the voters feel like me. Gutted. The thing is what do we do now? And I just don't know.

    1. Just as in America--now is the time for all of us to work all the harder to make our nations more compassionate places in which to live.

  4. Over the past few days I have talked to lots of people about why they voted as they did and it has been fascinating. All looking at the same thing through their subjective lenses. In the midst of Brexit us Britons can learn a lot from the Buddhist parable of the blind man and the elephant. Blind men surround an elephant and each feel a different part. And when they compare what they have 'seen' they start arguing about who is right. It shows us how we all only see part of the whole elephant based on our own subjective views and there is no absolute truth. And it is the same with the EU decision. Yet if we can see that there is no absolute right or wrong, no black and white, then we can come together to respect different perspectives, and have our opinions whilst still being open to others views. This is the only way to harmony.