Sunday, July 23, 2006

Reflections on war and peace

[Long, rambling post here with only one link, but I had to write it to get it out of my system. It's more a journal page than a blog post, but I'm not keeping a journal. Skip it if you wish, but do follow the link to Elie Weisel's lecture. The man is one of the treasures of our time.]

Two nights ago I followed a link in my reading that led me to a story by a former military man about something he had seen years before. Whether it really happened is irrelevant. But the story itself got my attention. I have decided not to link directly for reasons I hope to make clear. Briefly the story went something like this:

In a club where soldiers convene after hours to socialize, a big, strong bully of a guy started picking on a weak-looking smaller man who made a perfect target. He taunted him, messed with him and did all he could to provoke a conflict, but the little guy just seemed to ignore him. Finally in frustration the big man sucker-punched him on the side of his head, hitting him so hard that blood was coming from one of his ears. At that the little guy turned into a fury, attacking the bully with lightening speed, showing a martial skill set that made him seem as though he could take on two such bullies, striking him in vulnerable places, splitting a lip open, chipping a tooth, and in general beating the hell out of him. In fact his response was so quick, effective and violent that the bully began yelling for him to stop, crying for help, appealing for someone to make him quit. Those standing around thought if they didn't intervene to stop him the little guy might just kill the bully altogether, but as they got a little closer they could hear him saying between blows, "Do.... you.... give.... up.... yet?" every word underscored with another painful blow to the bully, who only whimpered and cried more for others to help. Finally, the bully said the magic words: "I give up." By admitting defeat in the presence of everyone looking on, the bully got the little guy to stop.

I thank the source that led me to this story because they used the word parable to describe the story. Not illustration, comparison or symbolic anecdote...but parable, a word with religious significance. As I was reading the story I became excited anticipating the outcome. It was immediately apparent the characters represented Hezbollah/Lebanon on one side and Israel on the other. Clearly the point was that if Israel didn't keep pounding away to the "I-give-up" point the results would be less than satisfying. I found myself swept away with the story, rooting for the underdog and sighing inwardly with smug satisfaction when justice was done.

But somewhere in my memory that word "parable" kept coming up. It would not go away. It was, as my wife sometimes calls that signal making her hesitate about something that seems right at first but somehow doesn't square...a check in her spirit. That's what it was: a check in my spirit.

Then I remembered my reading of the last several days. I remembered how swept up I became reading about this war, this conflict, this defense of Israel as she does what any nation would do under similar circumstances, probably with more constraint than most... and yet pictures of dead children and stories of civilians fleeing Lebanon also kept drumming in my head. I know that my emotions are being hyped by my reading.

Let me quickly say that getting emotional is not a bad thing. It is the stuff of life, of living, of dying, of defense and excitement, of learning and celebration, of all that makes us human. Emotion lets us know we are alive. Without emotion we may as well be dead. But emotions, like gambling or substance abuse or pornography, can also lead to trouble. One of the quarrels I have with some contemporary worship trends is an overflowing of emotional energy at the expense of spiritual discernment. (Having been spoon-fed guilt from childhood I know well how powerful a toxin it can be to one's growth, but the obverse of guilt is not forgiveness, but a misty feel-good shower of comfort, a mushy, dull denial of everyday challenges that pre-forgives all behavior to the point that nothing will ever be a problem again.)

The word prurient is used to describe an interest, typically visual, suggesting moral terpitude on the part of the observer. The concept is pivotal in deciding whether or not an image of a naked person is pornographic, artistic or scientific. Most people would grant that it can be any or all, depending on circumstance or the observer. (Or the observer of the observer, and so on...) But I am thinking of the word "prurient" as that quality which arouses in ordinary people a higher level of awareness and tolerance not of sexual depravity, but a behavioral depravity that impels us to enjoy, appreciate, seek and (let's face it) enjoy seeing the suffering and destruction of an enemy. That is exactly what I felt in myself as I read the story about the bully getting what he had coming to him. It made me feel good inside. It made me want to go back to the referal and write a thank-you for sending me to such a great parable.

And there is that word again. And again it gets in my way... I don't need any twelve-step program to tell me that I have a problem. If anything, I need a program to help me keep from forming a self-help group of like-minded people who would rather live the rest of their lives in denial of prurient interests in violence than come to terms with how that can be constructively overcome. This is something that I don't want to admit, much less discuss with other people. Maybe it's just me. Maybe nobody else knows what this is like, this incremental burial of conscience enabling one to look at... tolerate... expect... seek... enjoy... celebrate...
What? I cannot name it. But I know it is not what I want to be connected with, except to overcome it...

*** *** *** ***

A few nights ago I listened to Elie Wiesel being interviewed by Krista Tippett. One of the great empty spaces in my children's upbringing is that I didn't tell them about Elie Wiesel and all he represents. How to say his name: Elie (rhymes with Kelly) Wiesel (vee-ZELL). It could be because we are not Jewish. Overcoming racial prejudice in the South was such an immediate and important job that adding the horrors of the Holocaust would have put too much on their little wagons. I hoped their education would fill in some blanks. They are grown now and at some level they do understand, but I cannot take credit for teaching them myself.

Maybe it was a weakness in me. To this day I have not seen several movies, including Schindler's List, because I already got the point. I have met and known a few people who carry scars, emotional and physical, of the Holocaust. Their stories are enough for me. I see no reason to inflict further pain on anyone by reminding them or myself about the capacity of human beings to become sub-human. Besides, tragedies and depravities of similar collective human behavior did not stop, no matter what dreams anyone may have, with the end of the Second World War. I have also known survivors of the killing fields of Cambodia and the Liberian civil war. We do not discuss these matters because it is not just painful, it is simply rude to bring it up. They are not in America to be victims but conquerors, and only by becoming someone else can they achieve that victory.

Back to Wiesel, I had not until yesterday read his timeless Nobel Lecture. It is a powerful statement to be read slowly and thoughtfully, in parts, with time for reflection... I have not encountered so much content in so small a space for a long time. It will be no spoiler to start at the end of his lecture. He spoke about prayer, dreams, possessions, story-telling, remembering and speaking out... but somehow he did not address the issue of faith directly. He only uses the word "holy" in one reference.

Of course some wars may have been necessary or inevitable, but none was ever regarded as holy. For us, a holy war is a contradiction in terms.
For him, speaking as a Jew, there is no such thing as a holy war. It may be inevitable or even necessary, but never holy. This is a remarkable pronouncement, particularly in the historic light of Jihad and the Christian Crusades. I stand in awe of such a statement.

Speaking in 1986 the specter of Nuclear War was the Threat to Peace du jour. It is still a threat, of course, but it seems to have lost its potential to evoke fear with the emergence of the US as the world's unchallenged "superpower" and the advent of modern terrorism. But Elie Wiesel's final two lines ring true today.

A destruction only man can provoke, only man can prevent. Mankind must remember that peace is not God's gift to his creatures, it is our gift to each other.
Peace is a gift that only we can give to one another. Jesus alluded to this idea in the seventh beatitude but that part of the Sermon on the Mount is about as emasculted in its modern interpretation as an afternoon snip of Dr. Phil. Anyone who wants to bring up the idea of peace when the country is trying to manage a war is typically regarded as not being with the program at best, or being a traitor at worst.

The story that I read about the bully is misleading for the same reason that cartoons do not depict reality. Too clean, too simple, too empty of nuance. Cartoons and anecdotes...parables, if you like...make complicated matters easy to grasp, which is how spiritual mentors have used them. Such stories are found in all societies and their didactic power to teach us how to behave and feel is part of everyone's development. Aesop's fables, Three Little Pigs, movies we like...they all shape our character. But stories are often deceptive in their simplicity. That is why the story as told above is misleading.

I have been thinking about something Fayrouz said, that she thought God miscalculated the results of sending three prophets to the Middle East. From a human viewpoint I see what she means. But in the light of Elie Wiesel's statement about peace she may have something. Through those three prophets God allows man to learn how best to use the gift of free will in the service of peace instead of war. The Divine lesson is that free will makes peace, not war, mankind's most essential mission. As long as we opt to fight, we are bound to a cycle of fighting. God's seeming "miscalculation" then becomes a chance for man to exercise free will on a learning curve, moving to claim for himself -- meaning all of God's creatures -- peace in the future. What? Idealistic, you say? Correct me if I am wrong, but isn't idealism what we claim to be defending by waging war? What could possible be the harm of pursuing peace with at least some of the creative energy with which we now wage war?

We will come ultimately to the notion of forgiveness. I know it is tacky to speak of such things before the war is over... That is something we need to forget until we have first beat the adversary into submission. Forgiveness is most satisfying when we dole it out on our terms. It is most especially rewarding when our adversary has asked for it.

Wiesel spoke in his interview with Tipett about forgiveness. (The word does not appear in his Nobel lecture which is consistent with the Jewish notion of forgiveness, that the only source of forgiveness is the victim or God. Forgiveness is not a mortal option. Forgiveness is God's business.) She brought it up, for which I was greatful. Reconcilliation and forgiveness are for Christians tools of the trade. They are the elements that only Christians can and must bring to the table in any negotiations because there is nothing in either Muslim or Jewish traditions with the same dynamic.

If Wiesel is right the Jews may not be historically defiled with "holy war" in the same way that Muslims and Christians have been. Jews have been at war, of course, but as Wiesel said they never regarded it as "holy." Unavoidable or essential perhaps, but not holy. I submit that as Christians we have a corresponding responsibility to seek a holy peace, a radical, perhaps anxiety-filled change of direction for these times. If the cause of peace is not advanced by Christians, who, then, will advocate such a concept? I see no other possible carriers. And the Christians I see seem oblivious to that responsibility.

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