[This commentary was origially published in Religion Dispatches, April 12, 2011.]

When it comes to grabbing attention bad news is the best news. Whether selling war or natural disaster or a fugitive serial killer, the competitive edge goes to the media outlet that can scoop the most violence, brutality or sheer inhumanity in an event.

The most recent news cycle of political protests started out on a hopeful note. As the spirit of frustrated youthful protest spread at tweet speed to dictatorial regimes and elitist monarchies, journalists flocked to North Africa and the modern day Holy Land. Live coverage has shifted from country to country, depending in large part on where the most violence is erupting. Yet, as much as the story may be promoted as one of hope and liberation, the hook is all about devastation.

The media do not make us; no wars are started because of what can be seen on a news broadcast. We news consumers are addicts, badnewsaholics. From video games to action films and thriller novels we not only consume wars; we get high from seeing the dark side played out.

The Glittering Sword is Whet

Jonathan Edwards’ timeless sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God still resonates, even if God is now left out of the equation in the national media. Imagine the adrenaline boost listening to Rev. Edwards on that July 4, 1741 day, when his words rang out from the pulpit:

“The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow. The glittering sword is whet, and held over them, and the pit hath opened its mouth under them.”

Except for those in the grip of Bible belt polemics and the occasional raving bibliolatric lunatic loner like Terry Jones (who thinks the Lord Jehovah allowed Islam to be spread so one day he could burn a copy of the “Koran” in a Florida backwater and help bring about the return of Jesus), hellfire and brimstone no longer cloud most of our secular minds. But Edwards’ metaphorical glittering swords have been transformed into AK-37s and anti-aircraft guns, while ploughshares gather dust.

Of all the dictators and presidents-for-life on the brink of popular collapse, Libya’s Qaddafi is probably the most Stalin-like, the closest to a Book of Revelation “Beast”. His almost total disdain for the lives of his own people and delusional identification with the country he has ruled with an iron fist for decades make him the tyrant everyone can love to hate. The most ardent neocons join with revolutionaries in calling for his head. Even without the oil supply, can you imagine any political crisis anywhere else in the world where the U.N. Security Council, the U.S., NATO and even the Arab League would join in a crusade against a ruling madman?

Libya dominates the news cycle these days because of our own deep-seated desire to be thrilled, especially by the illicit and unsavory. This is hardly a new idea, but I am not reviving the notion of man the sinner nor am I arguing that we are wired by our DNA to hate, cheat and battle each other. We are slaves to our eyes. It is the riveted gaze that traps us into watching battle scenes, the strategic high of World of Warcraft engagement, of video boxing where we get knocked out and then get up with a new life— or simply start a new game, the God-like panopticon that our eyes provide, especially when we are on the outside looking in. I recently watched the first episode of Ken Burns’ documentary series on the American Civil War. At the first major battle over Manassas in Virginia the smug Washington politicians and business patricians buggied out to the ridges to watch their volunteer boys send the rebels packing.

But the southern confederates won the day and the war picnic-goers fled alongside the hopes of a quick end to the conflict. They came to feast their eyes on killing and revenge and ended up with a cowardly diarrhoea. Like a bloated drunk, they could not stomach what their eyes desired.

War Watching and Porn

This voyeurism that we participate in when we watch the violence in Libya (or Syria, or Yemen, or Bahrain, or Ivory Coast) is a close cousin of pornography. Both war-watching and porn focus on the graphic, on acts that are only proper when controlled and are always fraught with danger. Despite last month’s scientific revelation that internet pornography might lead to impotence, online sex brings several billions of dollars in profit each year—the pornographic gaze is good for business. The filmmakers and photographers make porn are the equivalent of arms manufacturers in the theater of war. An erect organ on screen shares space, at least in the male mind, with the shooting off of a tomahawk missile. At least in the male mind, war and sex are the playground for male desire and control.

There are obvious differences between war, which takes life, and sex, which evolved to give life. But in both the human body is on display. Whether male or female, our bodies can be seen as beautiful objects, canvases for identity, suitable frames for what we call a soul, mind or simply the “real me.” But not when it is tortured, not when it is blown to pieces, not when it becomes the focus of disgust. War, on the other hand, is always ugly, even when necessary.

We can and should celebrate heroism, but the greatest heroes are those who save lives, not those who take delight in the carnage. Sex, too, is a beautiful act, but not when passion is reduced to coercive lust. Without sex the human species would not exist; with too much reproduction we may yet make ourselves extinct. Such is the irony of our species. I cannot imagine a world without war, a utopia where respect always trumped revenge and where love inevitably overcame the reasons to hate.

But I can try to control what I gaze at.

The Lazy Eye

It is easy to blame the war machine or the pornography industry, but the more mundane problem is with our addiction to visual thrills. What some people see as a lack of moral vision (watching a porn video, for example) is perhaps better approached as an amoral astigmatism, a lazy eye, a privileging of the visual over our other evolved senses. The thrill of watching may mingle with compassion for those being harmed, but unless you as a viewer do something to actually alleviate that suffering, you are only a voyeuristic addict, entranced by the power of the gaze.

At the end of his sermon, so brimming with fervor, Jonathan Edwards exhorted his congregation, who were no doubt squirming on the hard pews of this New England chapel:

“Therefore, let every one that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come. The wrath of Almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over a great part of this congregation. Let every one fly out of Sodom: ‘Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed.'”

One need not be a literalist, as Edwards was, to appropriate the sentiment in this closing line for life today. It is not the wrath of God we need fear, but our failure to wake up and flee the modern Sodom. Edwards knew how dangerous it was to look behind, to do a Lot’s wife and be consumed. It makes a powerful sermon, but the moral lesson is really about what consumes us.

We consumers in the 21st century have centuries of technological inventions and historical lessons to draw on, but none of us are blind to the constant stream of manufactured images our eyes draw in for our minds.

Our lot, unlike that of the biblical patriarch who faced the conflicting morality of his own day, is not to look back and be consumed, not to turn and gaze in amazement at that which we wish to dream away.

Daniel Martin Varisco