I’ve always liked Shirley MacLaine. I liked her in Billy Wilder’s movies opposite Jack Lemmon in The Apartment and Irma la Douce. I even watched her videos in the 1980s to understand my New Age girlfriends better, and enjoyed her scene stealing in recent Downton Abbey episodes. But the actress turned New Age flake has sparked controversy with her new book “What If…” in which she suggests those killed in the Holocaust were paying for the sins of their past lives. The Daily Mail quotes the passage, “What if most Holocaust victims were balancing their karma from ages before, when they were Roman soldiers putting Christians to death, the Crusaders who murdered millions in the name of Christianity, soldiers with Hannibal, or those who stormed across the Near East with Alexander? The energy of killing is endless and will be experienced by the killer and the killee.’”
MacLaine is a former Baptist and this view expressed is not much different from Baptist teaching which views our souls as steeped in Original Sin. No one born is truly innocent. It is also a form of Deuteronomic Dualism where the theological question “Why do innocents suffer?” is answered “Because they are not truly innocent.” In MacLaine’s view they are being punished for actions made in their past lives.
Let’s look at Shirley’s numbers.
It is estimated that the Holocaust killed somewhere between 5 and 17 million people, with most sources agreeing on 8 million deaths.
Ancient Rome – A current obsession of mine... It turns out Rome was extremely tolerant of religions and it wasn’t until Nero’s reign that the Romans began persecuting them, and even then the evidence is for only a few cases (notably the martydom of St. Peter and St. Paul). After Nero it wasn’t until Domitian demanded Christians express religious fealty to him that they were persecuted again, and as under Nero the cases were sporadic. Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius protected Christians, and although Septimius Severus had a few Christians killed, there is no systematic persecution documented by Roman sources until the middle of the Third Century with the rule of Decius and later Valerian, Diocletian and Maxentius who was defeated by Constantine, the emperor who converted to Christianity and made it the official religion of Rome. The Christian emperors after that and the church itself tended to play up the number of Christians killed by the previous regimes, but today the number of deaths is thought to be in the thousands, not tens of thousands and certainly not more than that.
Crusades – Most estimates put the number of murdered around a million.
Hannibal and Alexander likely killed in the tens of thousands.
But how many ancients have blood on their hands, enough to justify being reincarnated as a Jew or Gypsy in Eastern Europe in the 20th century?
Hannibal and Alexander fielded armies numbering in the tens of thousands. Assuming that each soldier killed 1 innocent person, and we’re looking at roughly 100,000 “killers”. Assuming the same 1:1 ratio between “killer and killee” to use MacLaine’s terms in the Roman Empire, and we’ll generously estimate 100,000 “killers” in Rome. Of course the Crusades were a busy time for killing, and although the number of soldiers fielded during the Crusades is likely in the tens of thousands we’ll keep that 1:1 ratio and grant a million killers to the Crusades.
Total killers for all the events mentioned by MacLaine? 1.2 million – and that assumes that every soldier took one life when it is much likely that only a fraction of that number actually killed innocents.
So where’s the missing 6.8 million – those who had killed in their prior lives and were reincarnated only to die as innocents during the Holocaust?
There were of course other genocides in the 20th century. The Armenian Genocide that killed 1.5 million. The Russian and Chinese civil wars killed upwards of 20 million. The famine that followed Mao’s Great Leap Forward is estimated to have killed 40 million. Civilian deaths in World War I and II: 150 million.
It’s not an issue of karma but of demographics. There were many more people around in the 20th centuries than there were in prior centuries, especially compared to the ancient world. There are simply too many innocents dying this century who could have been killers in prior centuries.
But the main problem with MacLaine’s argument isn’t the numbers, it’s the philosophical logic. It rationalizes, even justifies Evil. The innocent woman raped and murdered deserved it because she was a killer in a past life, for example. There’s no point in punishing her killer because he will be reborn as a woman and suffer the same fate in the future.
Worse, it rationalizes anything. The poor deserve their fate today because they were wealthy and greedy in their past lives. The disabled must have injured others sometime long ago or else they wouldn’t have been born damaged. The ugly? Beautiful narcissists in the past. The rich and powerful today? The lot must have been humble and meek to deserve their current stations. This is nothing more than the justification for the order of things used by the Church and nobility in the Middle Ages to support feudalism and the oppression of the peasantry just with an Eastern twist. It is also a naive view of Karma and a gross oversimplification of Buddhist philosophy, the Baptist Sunday school taught to 5 year olds in MacLaine’s hometown of Richmond Virginia compared to the subtle nuances found in the writings of Thomas Aquinas.
I don’t think MacLaine should be censored for her views. I believe she has the right to her opinions just as she has a right to her flaky religious beliefs. But I do think she should be mocked, because while she has a right to her opinion as a public figure she gets a lot more attention than my loony neighbor who believes the Rapture is coming any day now. MacLaine has a microphone whereas my elderly neighbor does not.
Shirley MacLaine is an actress and we need to stop believing actors and actresses to be better people than we are. An actor’s job is to speak other people’s words, not to have opinions of his own that are somehow more informed or better than yours or mine. Actors and actresses were looked down upon by most cultures until recently, and the Ancient Chinese and Greeks would think we were nuts for caring what an actress had to say about anything. Perhaps this is another lesson the Ancients have to teach us.