We find ourselves struggling through a week marked by yet another massive escalation of violence and human suffering. Calls for restraint ring hollow as the incomprehensibly grotesque nature of the weekend incursion by Hamas militants into unsuspecting communities comes to light, as well as the scope and scale of the Israeli retaliation. Images of the stacked body bags of dead young people compete with those of city blocks razed to the ground. Thousands are dead; overwhelmingly non-combatants. The weight of sorrow nauseates both my heart and my mind, making it hard to know how to bear witness without contributing to the contest of angry voices.
Familiar arguments call for responding to “acts of terrorism” or “systematic oppression,” heavy with implied compulsion to take sides, apportion blame, and accept associated absolutisms about who one should “stand with.” The shared strategy seems to be to cripple the spirit of the adversary by engaging in unspeakable brutality against its population. Claims that the actions of enemy militants and politicians are the “true cause” of the suffering of civilians aim to deflect culpability for disproportionate and inhuman tactics. But however understandable the justifications for violence, intentional targeting of civilians is not made justifiable.
In truth, only dehumanizing ourselves allows us to accept the butchering of children or dropping an apartment building onto its residents, even if we simply turn the other way while it is being done on our behalf. While the horrors of war have already been unleashed, and the opportunity for prevention has passed, the sides are poised for exponentially scaling up the destruction. And even though we may only be witnessing the beginning of the violence, this war will eventually end. As the pieces of shattered lives are gathered, the question will remain, “how do we avoid the next cycle of bloodshed, where we failed to do so previously?” Despite understandable rage, fear, and even hatred coursing through the present, today’s responses will determine whether we find ourselves back in the same place, with another generation feeling the same pain.
Although it might challenge our political, historical, religious, or social convictions, there is an alternative to choosing to “stand with” one or the other side of this spiral of retributive escalation – “standing with” a future that does not hold the same potential for violence. This alternative will require rehumanizing one another, even in the midst of righteous anger. It may seem like naïveté to insist that an alternative is possible, that we might work toward a world where we lead with care and seek to improve life for every other person and creature. Particularly in light of what we have witnessed this week. But history has proven over and again that violence begets greater violence. Those who survive the murder of loved ones are more likely to seek retribution than a constructive relationship. We must stop embracing the idea that hatred and atrocities are the cost of “belonging” to a community. It is madness to suggest that we continue with the same behaviors expecting different outcomes. These are the seeds of further pain, not the seeds of peace.
How might decisions made in the coming days change if they account for all of the people who are losing loved ones in this crisis because others can’t see them as human beings? How would the next cycle of violence be avoided if solutions were based on a strategy of mutual healing rather than mutual harm? We will never achieve true security and prosperity until we decide that those things are not simply slogans for easy times, but truths that we teach and live by during the hardest of times. It is not a betrayal of yesterday’s victims to work to avoid more victims tomorrow. It is not a betrayal of the community that one loves to work for a transformed future that does not repeatedly plunge us all into the same present.
A final conviction that is linked to ICRD’s work and which I find no difficulty in challenging others to accept: to claim divine sanction for slaughtering others is beyond reprehensible. At the risk of alienating many, I contend that one of the great failings of religious faithful is to equivocate about whether or not the divine is calling us to destroy one another. This is not a question of “religious freedom”, but rather a cowardice of spirit in those who know that what they are doing is evil but refuse to control themselves. There is no calculus in which the divine needs or would insist upon human assistance to harm others. I do not accept as legitimate any argument declaring that we are divinely compelled to torture, hate, dehumanize, humiliate, or murder. What is divine does not putrefy our spirits and rend our flesh. Those are the very human weaknesses that the divine seeks to help us transcend.
People vilifying and destroying perceived adversaries may represent the bulk of human history, but there is also a wealth of cooperation built on empathy and communication across difference, leading to improved shared futures. And in that history, which stretches on ahead of us, I will continue to insist that the divine seeks healing over harm by elevating the best in a broken society. Because the bloodied sheet that I see pulled over a child’s body has no identity to me other than a tiny voice silenced, a million fascinations snuffed, a heart full of possible love crushed, and a gaping hole in our future as a species.
President & CEO