North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is not the first ruler to purge political opponents. Neither will he be the last. On New Year’s Day he explained why he had to rid North Korea of his uncle. Executions, he said, made the state’s ruling party stronger, purging it of “factional filth.” The quest for purity by eliminating opponents-people in an organization or state that are considered undesirable, even impure, imperfect, sinful, or polluted-has been a common thread throughout the fabric of time. It’s not a New Year after all.
While ancient cultures sacrificed humans to purify society and appease the gods, China’s Shang Dynasty chose to craft tall bronze statues and decapitate their heads instead. The Qin Dynasty reversed this practice by burying alive Confucius scholars and burning Taoists to death with hot coals. Confucianism’s emphasis on right-instead of corrupt-behavior threatened the status of “divine” rulers on earth. Taoists taught a purposeless world that needed no god, let alone an emperor. They were easily marked for death.
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During the Middle Ages, both Christian and Islamic sects were fixated on the concept of purifying the world through purges. For some Muslims, their interpretation of a blameless Paradise and God’s untainted nature produced holy wars, to rid Islamic societies of nonbelievers and the “infidels.” For European Christianity, Purgatory-a place for a second chance after death that existed between heaven and hell-gave rise to salvation through purification, which usually meant through torture and trials by fire.
Spain and England epitomized salvation through torture and fire. In the Old World, Spanish inquisitors rooted out the impure spirit and blood of Muslims and Jews by either expelling or slaughtering them. Natives in the New World were hunted down and torn to pieces, disemboweled, consumed by dogs, or hanged and roasted alive. Brutality towards “other” living things were the rule rather than the exception during the English Civil War too. Some Puritans believed they were sent to cleanse a sinful society, even of humans.
Behind Josef Stalin’s economic purges, Nazi’s quest for blood purity, the Khmer Rouge’s Year Zero, the United State’s brutal pacifications of socialists in Central and South America (including its current wars against “terrorists”), and the more recent Rwanda genocide and near genocidal events in Gaza, Chechnya, and Kosovo-Albania-Bosnia-Herzegovina, point to a timeless doctrine of purifying society of filth through violent purges. The filth were tens-of-millions of innocent people, including children.
The problem with trying to purify society through purges is who gets to define what is impure and filth? And once something or someone is labeled impure or filth, what type of legitimate means should be used to rid society of filth? When a ruler or state classifies a system or individuals as being impure, they can practically do whatever they want, only certain lives have value. Still, such attempts at purifying society evokes fear and hatred. All that is good diminishes, only the spaces for evil are allowed to grow and spread.
“Our party took a firm measure to get rid of factional filth that permeated the party,” said Kim. But perhaps the real “factional filth” lies within, that which first starts a chain reaction of unintended killings and wars, and that which has already been internalized by those who mistakenly believe it is their rightful purpose to rid society of opponents and their divergent ideas. True unity and strength can only exist where there is trust and understanding. Fear and distrust merely breeds more purges, leading to totalitarianism.
In a metaphorically purpose-driven world, whales devour shrimp unless shrimp become the size of whales. It is only right, then, for small and large post-religious societies to be confronting each other on a peninsula with new violent-based rituals of purification. Both seek to rid each other-and the world-of filth through nuclear fire. One ruler purges his society through executions and imprisonments. The other cleanses the world’s impurities by executing acts of imperialism and preemptive wars, never mind their consequences.
The concept of a pure, utopian, radically divine society is fleeting, an impossibility. Both Jesus and Mohammad understood this important truth, which is why they always tempered their messages with love and empathy. It is also why Lich Tsu, a Chinese philosopher, when challenged by a pious host for praising divine bounty that provided good things for his table, said: “Mosquitoes suck human blood, wolves devour human flesh, but we do not therefore assert that heaven created man for their benefit.”
Did heaven really create Kim Jong Un for the benefit of North Koreans? Did celestial gods make the current leaders, presidents, prime ministers, and other “representatives” around the world to purposely rule for the advantage of their people? And who will purify the purifiers of their “filth”?