Guns, Germs, Steel, and God

PBS has recently aired a documentary on Jared Diamond’s book and thesis that “guns, germs, and steel” are the driving forces of history as we know it. In his episode on European invasions of Africa, he highlights the Battle of Blood River, complete with scenes from the historic location and its recreated (in bronze) wagons.

The point of the episode: the guns won the day. I was immediately thrown back to the interchange in Red Clay, Blood River between Fortius Lieberman and Karel Landman after the battle:

“Guns. It was our guns. And the weather. Clear sun. It kept the powder dry. We were lucky.”
“No, Fortius, God. God gave us the victory. The land is ours now. They will never recover.”
“Nor will we, Karel. Nor will we.”

What is missing from Diamond’s account is, of course, the complex cultural and religious dynamics contained in “God.” Attendant to conceptions of ultimate order and justice contained in that term are also basic visions of how to order human societies and relationships. Surely these less tangible dimensions of human action were present as well.

In our own time, diverging and often distorted conceptions of “God” legitimate governments, armies, and terrorist squads, as well as ventures in peace-building and cooperation. To reduce history to metal and technology is to narrow the focus for our understanding and our imaginative alternatives for dealing with the ecological and political challenges we face.