Tension and Violence in Gaza– Beyond Redemption?

Traveling by bicycle through what was then Yugoslavia in December of 1983, my Midwestern American naivete about the world was shaken as I experienced the “Second World”– Cold War parlance for the industrial, communist-socialist countries– for the first time. I wasn’t in Ohio anymore. On the road near Mostar, toothless old women led mules laden with loosely-piled hay. They stared at my fair hair and my Raleigh 12-speed– both marvelously out of place, there and then.

The impression that marks my memory of that Yugoslavia? Crumbly, shabby, dirty, poor– and full of guns: guns on soldiers, pictures of guns, children playing with toy guns, and guns in shopfronts. It seemed like a place that had the tools to become violent, and none of wealth’s satiating, anesthetizing effect to buffer against carrying it out.

It looked like a place ready to fight. And, as it turns out, that’s what it did– all through the 1990s.

Gaza is similar, in that the weapons are plentiful (or, if depleted, have many willing suppliers), and the economic prospects are poor for a different future for its people. It doesn’t help that Hamas seems increasingly irrational (rockets towards Jerusalem? Really?) Gaza, for the foreseeable future, will continue to look like a place ready to fight. The current ceasefire may last for weeks or months, but it will not last long.

Redemption is always possible, but never probable, and certainly not inevitable. In this world–in whatever hemisphere or continent — great destruction and the suffering of innocents are more likely. The wounds and pains that people carry are deep. To see the wounds and pains of the other is the beginning step that might, perhaps, one day lead to the courage for longstanding ceasefire and peace.

GAZA CITY Reuters — With gunshots, sweets and cries of victory, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip poured into the streets to celebrate a ceasefire deal on Wednesday which ended eight days of deadly fighting.

After being stuck at home for days for fear of Israeli airstrikes, tens of thousands of Palestinians crowded into cars and doubled up on motorcycles, waving flags and chanting for Hamas, Israel’s main adversary and rulers of the Gaza Strip.

Women leaned over balconies ululating with joy as children stuffed four-abreast in the open trunks of cars clapped and sent out hoarse screams of “God is Great!”.

via Jubilant Palestinians mob Gaza streets | Maan News Agency.

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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.

Functioning as Religion

I’m reading William Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence. This is one of those books that gets you to re-assess long-held assumptions about the way the world is ordered. I’ll have more to say about Cavanaugh’s thesis; for now, here is a sampling from his chapter “The Invention of Religion.” Cavanaugh is arguing that what counts as “religious” is “any binding obligation or devotion that structures one’s social relations.” Whether such a binding obligation or devotion involves God, or not, is not essential in this definition of “religion.” He then goes on to quote from David Loy’s The Religion of the Market:

Religion is notoriously difficult to define. If, however, we adopt a functionalist view and understand religion as what grounds us by teaching us what the world is, and what our role in the world is, then it becomes obvious that traditional religions are fulfilling this role less and less, because that function is being supplanted– or overwhelmed– by other belief-systems and value-systems. Today the most powerful alternative explanation of the world is science, and the most attractive value-system has become consumerism. Their academic offspring is economics, probably the most influential of the “social sciences.” [I] argue that our present economic system should also be understood as our religion, because it has come to fulfill a religious function for us. (Cavanaugh, 107-108)

Stoicism in Syria?

Last winter I had the opportunity to hear and interact with Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador to the United States. This preceded the beginning of the unrest in that country, and the recurring violent response of the Assad government. Since that opportunity last winter, I have periodically checked the ambassador’s blog (simply google “Syrian ambassador” if you want to find it), just to see if he has been able to write anything new for public consumption.

His last entry– and it has been his last entry for awhile now– is dated March 25th, 2011 (just after the initial government crackdown on protesters in Daraa). In it, Imad reflects on the teachings of the 8th-century Muslim thinker Al-Kindi. Islam grew in the early centuries after Muhammad; in its openness and confidence it was able to engage Hellenistic ideas, and Al-Kindi’s thought reflects that engagement. Al-Kindi’s teaching on suffering– to which Imad gives his approval– is to cultivate a detachment to the world of ephemera. This detachment is to be cultivated in response to the old wisdom that everything of this world will rust and rot and pass away. What is permanent (a la Plato) is the world of ideas: consequently, intellectual contemplation is the way around suffering. The world of the intellect– from this perspective– is unchanging, and endures.

Yesterday the Assad regime received a rebuke from the U.N. Security Council. According to some human rights organizations, 2000 citizens have been killed by Syrian security forces. Apologists for the regime counter that such a response has been necessary for two reasons: first, Syrian security forces themselves have been violently attacked, and therefore need to defend themselves; and second, radicalized Islamic groups have infiltrated the protesters and are taking advantage of the unrest to promote deeper instability.

While those mitigating factors are probably true to some degree, it’s not clear that they would justify the kind of force that the government has used. And further, even the Syrian ambassador admits that the Assad regime has made mistakes in its response to the events of the last 5 months.

The choices of the Assad regime are not straightforward. What is straightforward, however, is that a regime that cannot be in solidarity with the suffering of its people is not just. It may survive through the use of overweening physical and psychological coercion, but it risks reaping what it has sown.

Here is an excerpt of Imad Moustapha’s reflections on Al-Kindi:

Al-Kindi rightly argues that it is not rational or natural to expect permanence and endurance of things. If we want to acquire and keep sensible things without them perishing, we are expecting from nature something that is unnatural and does not exist.

However, al-Kindi is not advocating a life of asceticism to avoid sadness; he is suggesting that we should be stoic about what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ in life. Thus we should accept good things graciously when they arrive, but never break our hearts when they depart. This is not nonchalance, it is a rational moral position that needs vigorous mental training and inner-self discipline ‘mujahadat al-nafs’. Unnecessary sorrow can be avoided by cultivating moral courage and detachment. The reasonable person is content to enjoy temporary things but does not grieve over what is lost.

Al Kindi wrote that stability and constancy, by necessity, only exist in the world of intellect, which we can contemplate. Therefore, if we do not want to lose the things we love and do not want to be frustrated in obtaining things we seek out, we must contemplate the intellectual world and, from our conceptions of what we love, possess and want from that intellectual world. Hence, he refers to those who are able to resist grief over the loss of cherished things as men of intellect, while those who do grieve are described as men of weak intellect….

via Weblog of a Syrian Diplomat in America.

Osama bin Laden Is Dead

The security apparatus of the state– intelligence and special operations forces– has done what it is supposed to do: find and kill the enemy.

In a brief interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC, the daughter of a 9/11 victim said something interesting as she attempted to describe her feelings. While acknowledging the satisfaction of justice being done, and the accompanying sense of closure, she stopped herself from using the word “joy” to describe how she felt.  While she didn’t have the chance to say more, perhaps she had the sense that the payment of death for death, while just– and in this case welcomed and necessary– is still no cause for joy. At least not for me.

I grieve tonight– for all the loss, death, and destruction of 9/11; for the existence of evil; for innocents who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan; for post-traumatic stressed servicemen and women and their families; for cycles of violence and victimization that are always justified and therefore very difficult to end. Bin Laden’s death satisfies justice, but it does not mean peace.

via Osama bin Laden dead: officials – Americas – Al Jazeera English.