A Big Ask
Some days I find myself wondering if i should give up watching and reading the news. It seems that when I switch on a TV newscast or open a newspaper on my iPad, all I see is a stream of horror: murders of children by children, atrocities beyond my comprehension, an endless cycle of tit-for-tat suffering imposed in the name of personally defined Justice.
Then I stop, allow my raised heart rate to settle and begin to focus from a perspective of calm. To arrive at equanimity is not callous or uncaring. To be at peace with yourself does not exclude the compassion you feel for those who are hurting from oppression. Arriving at a place of personal serenity does not make you immune to the worries of the world. If anything, you will feel them more. But it does place you in a more resourceful state to consider what you might be able to do practically to ease that suffering, however far from or near to you it might be.
History consistently teaches us that to react by reflex in a heightened emotional state usually achieves no more than the salving of feelings. And it commonly leads to ineffective, if devastating action.
Affronted by a 9/11 atrocity, an American led coalition looks about the world for somebody to hit back at. We bomb and march our way into Afghanistan, purportedly for the righteous purpose of eradicating Al Qaeda. Twenty years, thousands of lost lives and billions of dollars later, we limp back out again. Everything goes back to how it was. And now we stand by mutely as a nation sinks back under the waves of ignorant oppression. We have achieved nothing lasting for the devastating price that has been paid by them and by us - that's ‘us’ as in the populations of western nations and the maimed veterans. Never ‘us’ as in presidents and prime ministers.
Incandescent with rage at the evil oppression of the Zionists, Hamas hits them in a way they will never forget. Two months on and that hated enemy has killed 20,000 non-combatant Palestinians in its pursuit of retribution. Subjective perceptions of right and wrong, justice and injustice become irrelevant when knife-wilders emerge from the ground or the sky is raining bombs.
Shocked by a modern-day slaughter of the innocents, an Israeli prime minister sees no alternative but to bomb Gaza relentlessly to destroy Hamas once and for all. Except once and for all is never once and for all. For every terrorist eradicated, a thousand innocents who just wanted to get on with their lives are also killed. And upon those that survive, are imprinted such resentment and anger that the problem is simply recreated another generation on. If you bomb a child, he knows nothing of your righteous anger, your justifiable response to an unspeakable atrocity. All he knows is that you have caused him suffering beyond his capability to describe or understand. All he remembers is his pain and who caused his pain. And when he gets big enough, fuelled by his own anger and the surgically selective teaching of those who hate you, he learns to hate you too. For to him, you are the aggressor.
Love your enemies, said Jesus. Do good to those that hate you. It’s an indescribably big ask, isn’t it? At the very moment you most want to react in fully justified outrage you are asked to look at that machine-gun propped up in the corner, to look at your prime ministerial hotline to the chief of the armed forces, and not pick them up. How can you not? When the urge is strongest to retaliate, to eradicate a clear threat, to demolish an obvious danger, how can anyone seriously ask you stop and first find the love inside you that is buried under layer after layer of rage, anger, resentment and fear? And then, having found it, to ask yourself what is that has caused human beings to react in an inhuman way. And then to face the truth repeated endlessly through history: that making sure it never happens again means not flattening your neighbours' cities and putting their children into coffins but discovering why they are driven to murder and atrocities that neither you nor they will ever recover from.
Greek mythology tells of the Erinyes or Furies, goddesses of anger who drove the perpetual cycle of revenge for misdeeds and atrocities. For each act of effrontery, the merciless goddesses drove the wronged one or their representatives to exact a terrible retribution on the perpetrator or his loved ones. On and on the cycle continued, demanding an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth or preferably two eyes or two teeth for one. Only then was honour restored. Only then was justice served.
Two and a half thousand years later we eschew the language of revenge. Now we talk of eradicating threats, keeping our populations safe, ensuring the unthinkable is not permitted to happen again. But each night a bomb is dropped or a knife slashes, slaying someone’s son, someone’s grandmother, someone’s baby, each night the Furies return to whisper words of revenge in the ears of the grief-wracked. And each morning they arise once more to a world emptied of what they loved, their hearts filled with hatred, until later, sometimes much, much later, they too stalk the darkness in pursuit of revenge.
‘Bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you.’ It is a big ask. It’s a vast, huge, phenomenally indescribably enormous ask. But the alternative is to stand back and watch, as Gandhi said, as we exact eyes for eyes, making the whole world blind.