“I can’t begin to wrap my mind around the fact that this senseless act of violence happened on sacred ground. It does not matter that my spiritual path is different from those at Mother Emanuel … what matters is the sacredness of where they were when this occurred.” – Kelly Scott, Chairwoman of the Charleston Area Lowcountry Council of Alternative Spiritual Traditions.
In recent months, it seems that news report after news report speaks of violence either against or within a sacred space. These acts range from the horrifying terrorist attack at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel to the destruction of ancient religious sites. While the magnitude of each tragedy is, and never should be, comparable, these two specific examples, as well as others, involve unwelcome aggression and destructive violence against far more than body and property. They include the desecration of the sacred.Why does violence against the sacred or within the sacred “feel” worse to us than violence in non-sacred space? What is this transgression exactly? And what imprint does it leave in its wake?[i]
In a recent discussion, I asked priest, spirit worker and devotional Polytheist Anomalous Thracian his thoughts. Thracian not only maintains several personal altar spaces, but he also is currently working to build a community worship space. He said:
Certain lines must be held as absolute, and religious spaces — the freedoms and promises therein — are among those. This must be held to be universally warranted. As with the sanctity of a child’s innocence, the trust that we must hold that sacred spaces are safe and protected is an intrinsic expression of what it is to be a human in a society; these are fundamentals. There will always be assaults, always be murders, always be robberies, but certain transgressions are felt (and held) at a deeper and higher level of severity in response and reaction, specifically because those intrinsic lines and boundaries are not abstractions.
The invisible boundaries that define a sacred space, whether that be within the walls of a church or outside in a field, are created by deeply felt meaning. Those meanings, based on belief, spirit and emotion, can be or often seem like abstractions. However, because the sanctity of the space itself is recognized and understood beyond the meaning-makers or the church-goers, the boundaries, as Thracian said, are not at all abstractions.
In other words, Pagans can respect the sacred nature of a Christian church, even if they don’t follow the religion; and vice versa, a Christian can recognize the sanctity of Wiccan circle or Heathen temple. “The intrinsic lines” separating the sacred from the common world “are not abstractions.” This accounts for Charleston’s community turnout in support of the AME church. As Scott said, “It does not matter that my spiritual path is different from those at Mother Emanuel….”
Unfortunately, it is also this universal understanding that precipitates the violence itself. The attacker knows the value placed on the space, which makes it a target. In his book War on Sacred Grounds, Ron Eduard Hassner wrote “The more sacred a site, the more likely it will provide crucial functions, the more likely the friction with other groups, and the greater the odds of large-scale violence…”[ii]
The attack is, therefore, not typically directed against an individual person, nor against the practice of religion in general. It is an attack on a people; on a community at its heart and center. In the case of Charleston and the recent church burnings, the attack is on America’s black community.
In the essay “Sacred Spaces and Accursed Conflict: A Global Trend,” Chaiwat Satha-Anand wrote, “When a site becomes sacred for its believers, it is founded on the four political pillars: sovereignty, legitimacy, meaning and a sense of community. As a result, attacking sacred spaces is seen as an attempt to undermine the foundations on which their opponents identity and faith rests.” (p. 27)
Traditionally speaking, churches, temples and other sacred sites have been the “foundations” and hearts of community. While in today’s secular-based society the so-called “master planned cities” are developed around commerce and recreation, there is still room for the sacred as a binding factor and identity maker. Even if the sacred space isn’t physically central, or if there is no building at all, the space can still remain the heart beat of a community. For example, in local Wiccan circles or even in large yearly festivals like Pagan Spirit Gathering, it is the sabbats and the seasons that bring people together, year after year, into a sacred, ritual space. Whether the circle is in a home or a forest, it is a communal world built with the noted pillars of meaning, sovereignty, legitimacy and community.
Is that space sacred without human intervention? That discussion is beyond this article. However, at this point, it is enough to know that the sacred has traditionally been recognized as central to community and even to personal identity building.In our conversation, Thracian agreed, noting that violence against the sacred “is a violation of the entire fabric of what binds people together.” He added:
Society is humankind’s gods-and-spirits-directed answer to the first question posed by the natural world itself, of survivability through the dark night. The purpose of society is to answer the question of survivability in the positive by way of a vouched-for promise to the people in the dead of night: gather round this fire, and you will be safe. Within that answer, certain places carry a stronger emphasis in the promise than others.
Mother Emanuel’s victims had faith in the sanctity of the church’s building, and that faith built meaning into its walls, thereby creating a sacred environment. It is in that place they studied theology, spoke with their deity, celebrated and mourned. With guards down, they felt secure, held within the promise of that sanctity. Based on this understanding, they permitted a stranger not only into the physical building but into that safe space; into that trust.
In that respect, sacred spaces can act as expressions of divine hospitality. In other words, just as a temple serves to nurture its own people, the space also easily welcomes the stranger. Whether it be a Christian church, a Wiccan circle or an Asatru temple, all are constructed houses of or for deity and, as such, spaces of welcome. At Pagan Spirit Gathering, for example, guests, both old and new, are greeted with the words, “Welcome Home.” All are invited to experience the community as well as the divine. Since sacred boundaries are considered universal and not-abstract, it is easy to offer, accept and value this hospitality. Therefore, any violence against or within that sacred space becomes a jarring violation of this divine hospitality, as well as a direct devaluation of a community’s worth.
Unfortunately, the June attack on Mother Emanuel is not the only recent instance of violence within sacred space, and it is not even the most recent. Many will remember the 2012 terrorist attack on The Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. During Sunday morning services, Wade Michael Page entered the building, open fired and killed seven people. This past March, Al Badr mosque and Al Hashoosh mosque in Yemen were the targets of a suicide bombing that killed 137 people. More recently, during the holy month of Ramadan, terrorists attacked worshippers at al-Imam al-Sadiq mosque in Kuwait, killing 13. These are only a few such incidents.
Violence against or within sacred space is not limited to cases where there is loss of life. Along with the recent church burnings in the U.S., terrorists are engaged in the systematic destruction of ancient sacred sites. In an article partially entitled “Tracking a Trail of Historical Obliteration,” CNN recounts the recent destruction of religious sites such as Jonah’s Tomb, Nimrud, Hatra and Bosra. According to news reports, Daesh (also known as the Islamic State) is now calling for the “obliteration” of the Egyptian pyramids and Sphinx.
The ruination of sacred sites is not limited to terrorist acts. Commercialism, colonialism, expansion and “progress” have all been blamed for such transgressive acts. And, such accounts are not only in our history books. In a March 2015 article, entitled “Selling off Apache Land,” The New York Times reports that the San Carlos Apache Tribe has been fighting to save Oak Flat, an area used for prayer and ceremonies, from mining interests. In The Guardian, Eriel Tchekwie Deranger, a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, writes “Canada’s Tar Sands aren’t just oil fields, they are sacred lands for my people.” These are just two examples of many from around the world.Whether land or edifice, sacred spaces promise connection and safety, created by a communal meaning. They exist at the heart of community and are often bonding points. However, these sacred spaces also have another role. They connect us, through memory, to our past and to spirit. Thracian said:
The promise is not merely made to humans: it is made to the gods, and to the ancestors who came before us. Ancestors of religious lineage (saints, prophets, teachers, martyrs, heroes) and ancestors of society (founders, forefathers and foremothers, familial relations, immigrants who survived atrocity to bring their families to safety), going back thousands upon thousands of years.
As noted in The New York Times Apache Land article, “the archaeological record at Oak Flat contains abundant evidence that the Apache have been there since well before recorded history.” The Apache Tribe is protecting more than just a plot of dirt on which they perform ceremony. Through the sacred we can locate a connection across time, which allows us to deepen our present and develop our future.
Memory itself, absent of religion, can even bring about this condition of sanctity. The spaces to which we nostalgically cling become sacred themselves – our childhood bedroom, a grandmother’s kitchen, a pet’s burial ground, the park bench where you had your first kiss or even a quiet spot in the forest where you once hid. While not traditionally or religiously sacred, these places are personal examples that demonstrate how memory brings about sanctity.
In that vein, there is a type of sacred space that is born of violence and its memory. The 9/11 Memorial, otherwise known as Ground Zero, was once a thriving business center in which two iconic towers stood. They were symbolic of both New York City and the thriving heart of American business. In that way, the Twin Towers were similar to a church, containing more meaning than existed within its physicality alone. However, the space was not sacred.
All of that changed on Sept. 11, 2001. Today, the memorial’s meaning far exceeds its construction and its past purpose. Here, violence begot the sacred. Within that memorial space, visitors connect to memory, to ancestors and even to deity. The memorial’s guards request low voices and respectful behavior. All around, people pray, cry, remember and walk slowly in thought. Other examples of such a space are Auschwitz, the Anne Frank House, battlefields such as Gettysburg or Normandy. And, there are many countless smaller memorials around the world that mark past atrocities, loss of life and acts of violence, all of which have given way to sacred space.When violence births the sacred, it is difficult to reconcile the two in one thought. Even when one is put back together. While the 9/11 memorial is a beautiful place, it only exists because of that violence. This develops a sanctity that is uncomfortable, but powerful nonetheless. You can’t appreciate the memorial’s beauty without acknowledging the tragedy. That is not easy.
In all cases, transgressive violence against the sacred suggests a toxic aggression – one that breaks down community. The sacred is about wholeness and congruity; violence is about division and chaos. One nurtures and supports; while the other undermines and destroys. They can’t coexist; therefore, together they create a discord in our thinking – a cognitive dissonance. There is, at that terrible intersection, a stuttered void, in which we find ourselves only able to ask: “How? Why?”
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[i] This essay discusses unwelcome and toxic violence aimed at community destruction or obliteration. This must be distinguished from any small ritual acts, which in some cultures are considered acceptable including, for example, animal sacrifice or effigy burnings.
[ii] This quote was pulled from Chaiwat Satha-Anand’s essay “Sacred Spaces and Accursed Conflict: A Global Trend?” which was published in the book Protecting the Sacred, Creating Peace in Asia PacificTransaction (2013). Hassner’s own book, War on Sacred Grounds, was published by Cornell University Press in 2009.