I wrote this a few months back, and I keep fiddling with it. It is based on a letter I read on the website for the Center for Theology and Social Analysis here in St. Louis. The letter, part of which I reproduce in the first paragraph, is by Barbara Lubin, who quotes Allen Ginsburg:
"F… hope,” he yelled. 'It’s not about hope…. You don’t do what you do because you hope things will get better. It’s about getting up every morning and asking yourself what’s the right thing to do and doing it.' Allen Ginsberg taught me a great lesson that night. He was right. It is wonderful if one is hopeful in life, but I will not wait around trying to feel hopeful about what is happening to the children in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq, or in poor communities here in America. I will continue to be angry and I will get up every morning and ask myself 'What is the right thing to do?' and do it."
I think I understand what Lubin and Ginsberg mean, but hope isn’t mere optimism; it isn’t saying, “Maybe today people will just magically stop fighting.” Without hope that real transformation is possible, it seems to me there is little left but stopping the unredeemable adversary by any means necessary. That is, if we have no hope that those who kill children in Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq can be brought to conversion by afflicting their consciences, how else can those children’s lives be spared than by crushing those who would (and do) crush them? Those who follow that path can easily find a justification, a reason why they have to torture or kill, just as President Bush was willing to sign a bill that functionally legalizes torture, and that justification would probably sound something like this: “These people don’t understand anything but force.”
Variations on that theme have held on every side of every major conflict and violent situation I have ever read anything about. Consider a few examples. From an advocate of manifest destiny: “The Indian…is an untamable, carnivorous animal.” From a Nazi doctor: “The annihilation of the Jews was a provision for the recovery of the world, and of Germany.” From the conflict in Vietnam: “The Pathet [Lao] and North Vietnamese are a plague. We have to eliminate them. They have no regard for human life.” From Malcolm X: “Don’t change the white man’s mind. You can’t change his mind, and that whole thing about appealing to the moral conscience of America – America’s conscience is bankrupt.” From the conflict in Israel and Palestine: “Arabs don't understand anything but force. So, it makes all the sense in the world to show them that we aren't afraid to use brute force against them. Only when we do this, will the world respect us, and America follow in our example.” From the tension with North Korea: “These barbarians in the east don't understand anything but FORCE.” From Osama Bin Laden: “Bush and Blair don't understand anything but the power of force. Every time they kill us, we kill them, so the balance of terror can be achieved.” From the Iraq war: “We may need to flatten Fallujah. We may need to destroy it. We may need to grind it, pulverize it and salt the soil, as the Romans did with troublesome enemies.” Also from the Iraq war: “The U.S. should blitzkrieg them with so much force that they realize that their cause is futile. For every one of ours that dies in a terrorist attack, we should kill a hundred of them, without worrying whether the dead were terrorists or innocent bystanders. You can't reason with these people; they don't understand anything but force.” From Donald Rumsfeld: “This is not an enemy that can be ignored, or negotiated with, or appeased.” That is, wiping them out is our only option.
Are all of those voices right? Are any of them? Are those whom we claim as the great moral leaders of human history totally inadequate to meeting the reality of terrorism? Far from it; on the contrary, many of them arose in situations akin to terrorism. Jesus, living under an often-brutal Roman occupation, surrounded by those who screamed for revolt, could still say, “I say to you, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For is you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?” Mohandas Gandhi, no stranger to the brutalization of his people, could still say, “Hatred can be overcome only by love. Counter-hatred only increases the surface as well as the depth of hatred.” Those who would dismiss such sentiments as pious and unrealistic should consider at once the deep-seated violence and racism he faced and the unparalleled measure of the success such pious sentiments achieved.
After white racists bombed a church in Birmingham, killing four adolescent girls, Martin Luther King preached their eulogy, including the following lines (which lost him many supporters for not calling for violence against whites, who had seemingly proved that they didn’t understand anything but force): “We must not become bitter; nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. We must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and worth of all human personality.” That is, although it is hard at this moment to see the possibility of conversion in those who would do this, hope is our only means of warding off the despair that would demand that, for the sake of our innocents, we must crush those who would crush us. Similarly he could say, “To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you…Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.’” Wouldn’t he have been justified in calling for vengeance? Don’t people have the right to defend themselves? Yes, but… But would that kind of backlash made them safer, would it have ended violence against blacks, would it have enabled even the very mixed record on race relations that this country currently has?
This is of enormous significance; each of them could have believed, easily and with justification, that they were up against enemies who understood nothing but force, but had they done so, history would have progressed very differently than it has. Before we repeat to ourselves that hope is not what we need now, or that the group at hand is beyond hope, that they are monsters who truly understand nothing but force, perhaps we can ask what it would mean to have the kind of Christian hope that makes possible the transformation of the enemy (and ourselves) through accepting suffering as opposed to inflicting it.