Civilized and Savage

“In Any War Between the Civilized Man and the Savage, Support the Civilized Man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” Ad in the New York Subway, from Pam Geller’s Group

Sometimes it’s worthwhile to check some newspapers from around the country, in order to find out how widely a story is being covered. Today’s Cleveland Plain Dealer is full of reports on the presidential candidates’ recent campaigning in Ohio, for example– but has nothing on Pam Geller’s ads in the New York subways. The New York Post has a little item in the “Metro” section on the release of Mona Eltahawy, who spent the night in jail for spray-painting over one of the ads.

In case you missed it, Pam Geller’s group, the so-called American Freedom Defense Initiative, has placed ads in the New York subway system after having won a challenge in court for the right to do so. The text reads, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”

First, Israel is not currently in anything recognizable as a war. Israel has enemies, has been in wars in the past, and is prepared to go to war if necessary, but is not currently at war. That’s not to say that Israel is at peace– surely that is not the present state of affairs, either. But to characterize the situation today as “war,” is to misunderstand the situation, or to misuse the word “war.”

Second, to characterize any group as “savages” is an old rhetorical device to dehumanize that group, thereby making the killing of them permissible. It is at least understandable how this happens in combat situations, when people are under severe stress. In this instance (an ad on a subway wall), the rhetoric serves no discernible purpose– except to inflame for the sake of inflaming.

Third, while in the history of this conflict it is true that sad and terrible violence has been inflicted on innocent Jewish Israelis, it is also true that sad and terrible violence has been inflicted on innocent Arab Palestinian Muslims. A conceptual framework that places who is right and “civilized” on this side, and who is wrong and “savage” on that side, is not a helpful conceptual framework. It distorts the picture.

To support civilization is to encourage thoughtful moderates on both sides of the conflict (yes, those people do exist!) to do the work of making peace. Inflamed rhetoric– even from an American who lives on Long Island– only makes a civilized resolution more difficult.

via Pam Geller Anti Muslim Subway Ads: Muslims Welcome Debates On Islam, But Not Demonization.

Violence on Christmas– Inhabiting the Same Space

Managing differences between people, and containing potential violence, is a challenge as old as clans and kinship. What’s new, is both the unprecedented proximity of very different people, and the distance that their violence can be projected. This is true of both state-sanctioned and “religion”-sanctioned violence. (For “religion”-sanctioned violence projected over a large distance, think 9/11; for state-sanctioned violence projected over a large distance, think US drone attacks in the tribal regions of Pakistan.)

This report of today’s violence [excerpted below] in Nigeria is getting some airtime in the mainstream American media, as it should. I think the only faithful response to people who kill others because of their Other-ness, is to continue to build the bridges that make our unprecedented proximity less threatening.

While the history of Christianity is littered with instances of shameful violence directed at “infidels,” the child of Bethlehem came to reveal both the humanity and the divinity of all victims. The Other is not a devil; we share a humanity. And the humanity we share is in the image of God.

In honesty, I remain unconvinced that non-violence is the best– or even the most faithful– response in all situations. However, if we take seriously the God who is revealed in Christ, then we need to think much more deeply than we do, before we kill.

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI issued pleas for peace to reign across the world during his traditional Christmas address Sunday, a call marred by Muslim extremists who bombed a Catholic church in Nigeria, striking after worshippers celebrated Mass.

The assault on the Catholic church left 35 dead in Madalla, near the Nigerian capital. A failed bombing also occurred near a church in the city of Jos, followed by a shooting that killed a police officer. The blast came a year after a series of Christmas Eve bombs in Jos claimed by Islamist militants killed 32.

via Nigerian blasts mar pope’s Christmas peace appeal | cleveland.com.

Christmas in Bethlehem

Altar Servers at the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

The people who were looking for a savior in the time of Jesus were people who had suffered much. They needed deliverance. But whom should they look for? A new Moses? A prophet, like Elijah? Or were things so bad, that only God could make it right?

As the story goes, a baby is born to Mary. Herod gets some inkling that this baby won’t be good for business– his business being domination and coercive power– and so, in order to hedge his bets,  he orders all the babies to be killed. These are not the best conditions under which to raise a family, so Joseph scurries to Egypt with his wife and boy, until the danger passes. The cute manger scene does not last for long.

To sentimentalize and domesticate Christmas is to ignore what the story really says. What the story tells us, again and again, is that people are frightened at the reality of God’s coming into the world: Mary is scared, Joseph is scared, the shepherds are scared, and Herod– the king!– is scared. Why are they scared?

Because when God comes into the world, things change– and they don’t change  just a little. For those who have much, the risk of change is loss. For those who have nothing, the risk of change is hope. Either way, the Christmas story ends up revealing the truth of our vulnerability, kings and shepherds alike. But that’s not all the story does. This revelation of mutual vulnerability shines with the possibility for new life and restored relationships, because in the Christmas story, God is vulnerable too.

Latin Patriarch of Palestine and Jordan Fuad Twal arrived at the Nativity Church in Bethlehem on Saturday, as thousands gathered to celebrate the annual Christmas mass.”We ask the baby of Bethlehem to give us the peace we really need, peace in all the countries of the Middle East. We demand peace in the Holy Land,” said Twal.

via Maan News Agency: Latin patriarch demands ‘peace in the Holy Land’.

Good Will and Peace

George Fox, Friend of the Truth: founder of the Quakers

John Howard Yoder traces the roots of Quaker non-violence to the 17th-century English puritan understanding of conversion: God doesn’t coerce belief; rather, we come to believe through a process of authentic inward change, wrought by the searching– and sometimes painful– presence of God’s Light within. In the same way, the transformation of enmity to amity cannot be brought by coercion. Enemies are conquered the same way that God conquers us– by the relentless willing of good for the other, even when all the evidence suggests that the other doesn’t give a damn.

That’s the condition– the seeming “not giving a damn” for the other– that marks the public stance of the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government today, as we move toward the Christian holy day of Christmas. Bethlehem is in the West Bank. It’s behind a wall that Israel is building, one of the measures it takes to protect itself from violence.

Also behind the wall, north of Jerusalem, is the Friends International Center, in Ramallah. The Quakers have been in Ramallah since before Israel existed, founding schools there in the late-19th century. Today, the Friends International Center aims to be a place where people can worship in the Quaker tradition, can meet others who are committed to peace, and can support the local community in its desire for a more hopeful future.

The official stance of “not giving a damn” for the other, is not the stance of many, many people of genuine good will from both sides. May they all– including the Ramallah Friends and their supporters around the world– continue their work, strengthened in conviction for peace by the grace of Light: the power of God, so tender and mild, holy infant of Mary.

via George Fox.

Some Good News: A New Generation of Peace Between India and Pakistan?

Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna, left, and his Pakistani counterpart Hina Rabbani Khar

Since good news doesn’t sell, this story will be under-reported: India and Pakistan are preparing to renew peace talks, which had been postponed since the 2008 attacks in Mumbai. With regard to peace talks of any sort, I am reminded of a line from T.S. Eliot: “we are undefeated only because we have gone on trying.” Which is to say, failure is only in giving up: never give up trying to make peace.

The excerpt below (with the accompanying link to the full article) brings our attention to small signs of hope. Such small signs of hope are as necessary in international relations as they are in our daily rounds. From the Christian Science Monitor:

A fresh face is bringing new optimism to one of the oldest international spats. On her first visit to New Delhi, Pakistan’s new 34-year-old foreign minister said she is hopeful that a younger generation of Indians and Pakistanis can find peace.

“A new generation of Indians and Pakistanis will see a relationship that will hopefully be much different from the one that has been experienced in the last two decades,” said Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan’s youngest-ever foreign minister.

One indication of that happening: Social-media interactions between the two countries are burgeoning. Facebook reports that their site is now logging more than 200,000 interactions between Indians and Pakistanis each day. That’s up from 70,000 a day in April….

via Pakistan’s foreign minister: The face of a new generation of peace with India? – CSMonitor.com.

Enmity and the Syrian Ambassador

Imad Moustapha is the Syrian ambassador to the United States. He is Western-educated (Ph.D. from Surrey, United Kingdom), witty, and loves some of the greatest music ever composed in Europe: Bach’s cello suites; Mahler’s symphonies. He comes across as fair-minded (if understandably biased toward Syrian interests), proud of Arab (and particularly Syrian) culture, and passionate for learning and life.

He is also the official representative of a country that we officially consider an enemy, which, I suppose, makes the ambassador an enemy too.

Christian theology is, of its essence, about the relationship of Other to Self. Trinitarian theology (to rashly sum up 2000 years of conversation and debate in one sentence) understands the very nature of divinity as the participation of Persons one with another, in a unity that does not erase distinction. Christ on the Cross is the divine refusal to seek just revenge for having been wronged; put positively, Christ on the Cross (to paraphrase Miroslav Volf) is God’s act of making God’s very Self an open space that welcomes the Other, turning enmity into the possibility of embrace.

Christian discipleship– to be a follower of Jesus– means imitating Christ in this assertion of refusing to participate in cycles of revenge. (This assertion of refusing revenge can operate at all levels of human relationships: spousal, familial, communal, national, and international. For Christians, this refusal of revenge is the life-affirming, life-transforming power of God.)

All of which brings us back to the Syrian ambassador.

US policy toward Syria will be determined by the forces of politics. However, that is not– and never will be– the whole story. Additionally, thoughtful Christian theology reminds us of another power that is always at work, if mostly unnoticed– the power of seeing divinity in the Other, even in the midst of distrust and enmity. Jesus was shrewdly correct: we need to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves, at one and the very same time.

Ever Old, Ever New: The Call for Peace

Latin Patriarch calls for ‘genuine, long-lasting peace’

Latin Patriarch calls for ‘genuine, long-lasting peace’

By JONAH MANDEL (from the “Jerusalem Post”)

With Christmas and the year 2011 around the corner, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem relayed his seasonal wishes to the public on Tuesday….

Speaking to the press in the capital’s Old City, His Beatitude Fouad Twal thanked the pope for convening the recent Synod of Middle Eastern Bishops, which “condemned violence, religious fundamentalism, anti-Semitism, anti-Judaism, anti-Christianity and Islamophobia, and called on religions to assume their responsibilities in promoting dialogue among cultures and civilizations in our region and in the entire world.”

Let the people say, “Amen.”