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Two months ago, three sixteen year old Israeli teenage boys were kidnapped as they hitchhiked back to their homes, they were tied up, beaten, killed and then buried under a pile of rocks. A few days later, a few Jewish extremist vigilantes responded to that murder by kidnapping a fifteen year old Arab boy as he waited for friends. He was horribly beaten and then burned alive. Hamas fighters, acting in response to that outrage, began launching explosive rockets toward Israeli settlements and cities. Several homes and a few Israelis were killed. Hamas fighters snuck through underground tunnels leading to Israeli towns with the hopes to perpetrate a mass killing of unarmed Jewish civilians. The Israeli army responded by invading the Gaza Strip where Hamas rockets were launched and where the tunnels began. Because Hamas fighters hide themselves within schools, shopping centers, mosques and apartment buildings, Israeli tanks and fighter jets destroyed not only the rockets and tunnels but also killed hundreds of unarmed Palestinian civilians. After multiple deaths on both sides of the conflict, the worn out combatants pulled back and began a series of cease fires. Even so, Israelis and Palestinians still stare at each other across the Gaza border with visceral hatred. Each side still harbors the desire to destroy the other. This cycle of violence may have stopped for a time, but there is little doubt it will begin anew at some future time.
I have no desire to plumb the complexities of who might be to blame or who caused the original affront. I hope you will not allow your thinking to do that either. Instead, I hope to focus our thoughts on the horrible violence that happened and specifically how that violence relates to us. I hope to focus on the hate involved and the need for a lasting peace between people everywhere.
As we turn our gaze at a world that is now so violent in so many places – in the Ukraine, in Iraq, Syria, Gaza, Somalia, Nigeria and elsewhere, I pray we re-focus that gaze inward, to do what I have talked about in my August message series. How can WE, as individuals, be the change we want to see? How do we turn a macro vision of warfare on our planet into a micro vision of it – how violence infects our own interactions with others. Indeed, I call out the hypocrisy in me and in others that too easily condemns the violence I see around the world but also too easily acts with angry speech or actions toward someone in my life whom I perceive has hurt me. The hate and anger that can rise up in me is no different than the hate and anger that animates Israelis and Palestinians. How can I be a peacemaking change agent in my own life and thus, as Gandhi encouraged, a change agent for peace around the world?
The key, for Gandhi, is to create spiritual reconciliation. Peace between two persons or two groups of people means that they co-exist and have a relationship that is respectful and absent verbal or physical violence. To resolve issues between two parties is different from reconciling and re-establishing relationship. Resolution requires a complex and difficult intellectual examination of facts – most of which are interpreted differently by the opposing sides. Trying to negotiate a resolution between two sides in any dispute is almost impossible when passions of rage and hate predominate.
People can have their differences while still enjoying a peaceful relationship. Between any people in conflict, the critical goal is to get them to respectfully relate with one another in such a way that the hard work of resolving differences can take place. Ultimately, establishing a peaceful relationship requires each side to recognize the basic dignity of the other and to love the other as a fellow human.
And if that seems like a pie-in-the-sky utopian dream, that any person or any nation will be able to forever banish angry or violent thoughts towards others, it is. And Gandhi agreed. But as much as he acknowledged the human propensity to hate and to violently attack others has existed for millennia, he also perceived that a spiritual ethic and sensitivity exists within every person. Almost any of the world’s problems, or the problems any of us face, have spiritual roots. And that is why his statement that we must be the change that we want to see is more than a nice slogan. It is literally true. Racism, poverty, crime, violence, envy, hatred, war, terrorism – they all originate in the hearts of individuals. We cannot change these problem unless we first change the cause – which is found inside us.
As the central premise for my message today, individuals must rigorously examine themselves and willingly hold themselves accountable for violent speech and actions in any format and toward any person. Following on that premise, it does us no good to talk about what others should do. Beginning with me, beginning with each of us, we need to examine our own thoughts, words and actions that are violent and are not peaceful.
In my message two weeks about changing the world by serving others, I noted that Gandhi believed each person is born spiritually blind. Only by exploring one’s inner heart can one self-realize and find spiritual sight.
Each person has the same spiritual impulse to love and be loved. This inner truth force is the same no matter one’s sex, ethnicity or national origin. As humans, we hunger for connection with others. We delight in affection and love that is showered on us. All humans can be enabled by this force to unconditionally love, give and care for others. We all have seen this in action – in ourselves and in others. I saw it firsthand in how some acted last week in honoring Worley Rodehaver. There was no benefit to people giving and loving in his memory. They simply did it – springing from their inner truth force. Too often, however, we blind ourselves to its reality. Anger and hate can cloud our spiritual vision. We don’t purposefully endeavor to see as our hearts want us to see. The problem with any conflict we face is how do we enable and put into action our inner truth?
For Gandhi, the crucial step in becoming a peacemaker, in re-establishing a relationship with one who has hurt us or with whom we are in conflict, is to tap into our truth force by forgiving. And forgiving involves a three step process. First, he believed we should acknowledge and remember the pain we have suffered or the reason why we are in conflict. Forgiveness does not involve forgetting.
Then comes the difficult part. Even though we remember a hurt, the second step is to make a conscious decision to refuse to act or speak toward a perceived opponent in ANY way that is violent, hateful, demeaning, mean spirited or vengeful.
Third and last in the process of forgiving another is to build empathy for the offender by working to understand his or her reasons, thoughts and motivations. We should literally place ourselves in his or her shoes and try to think as they think, to perceive a situation as they perceive it.
In sum, three steps to forgive and let go of anger at an offender or opponent. Accept the memory of a hurt. Refuse to react with violence. Build empathy.
As with so many endeavors in our lives, forgiving is a spiritual process. Gandhi called this effort satyagraha, the pursuit of the inner truth force of which I just spoke. When we forgive another, we act out our truth force of love. We were blind but suddenly we see in a divine way, in an unconditionally loving way, in a universally and eternally good way.
And that is what people must do in order to begin the process of being a peacemaker. But for Gandhi, becoming a peacemaker does not necessarily create peace. We might forgive and be a peacemaker only to have an offender still hurt us. As anyone who knows about the Civil Rights marches of the 1960’s, African-Americans were acting as peacemakers. They had both renounced hateful speech and violent actions and implicitly forgiven white oppressors. And yet they were met by hate and violence – police dogs, water cannons, arrest and racist words.
Change came when the oppressors and onlookers saw the satyagraha truth force of the African-American protestors. They saw their implicit love, their implicit forgiveness, their purposeful renunciation of violence and, most importantly, their willingness to endure suffering for the sake of peace. Such suffering approaches martyr like proportions – a suffering that accepts pain for the greater cause of establishing peace. Few offenders or onlookers will long persist with violence in the face of suffering and forgiveness on the part of a victim. The battle will be won, the moral high ground achieved. Non-violence ultimately prevails.
Contrasted with the recent history I recounted earlier of tit-for-tat murders of Israeli and Palestinian youth, is a story about the death of a 12 year-old Palestinian boy, Ahmed Khatib, in 2008. On the day of Eid, the Muslim holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan, young Ahmed put on his holiday clothes and went out to play with friends. His friends soon told him of an Israeli Army patrol that was inside his Jenin refugee camp located in the West Bank. As a Palestinian boy, he often joined other boys by throwing rocks at Israeli troops – their way of fighting back. Ahmed’s friends and parents acknowledge he carried a wooden toy gun with him that day. He had gone out, like many boys all over the world, to play with a toy – much the same as boys in the US might do playing cops and robbers. He soon, however, joined other boys by hurling rocks at an Israeli armored troop carrier. He was still clutching his toy, wooden gun. Tragically, whether by mistake or on purpose, a shot rang out from the armored carrier and hit Ahmed in the leg. He screamed in pain but then another shot rang out striking him in the head. He was rushed to a local hospital which soon received permission for his transport to an Israeli hospital in Haifa. When his mother finally reached his bedside, he was still alive but cold and unmoving. His clothes were covered with blood and gore. No surgery was undertaken as his injuries were so severe – a large portion of his brain had been blown away. He lingered on life support for two days.
During that time, Ahmed’s parents were overcome with grief. They struggled with the decision of what to do – keep him on life support or not. They finally decided to allow him to die by removing his breathing tube. While in the hospital, Ahmed’s mother Abla saw suffering all around. Many young Jewish children were fighting severe illnesses – one girl dying of a heart defect, a boy dying with liver failure. After his death, she knew what needed to be done. She donated his body and his organs to be used to save others. Within hours, Ahmed’s heart, kidneys, lungs and liver were transplanted into six Israeli children.
Abla, his mother, was angry that the Israeli soldiers had shot Ahmed for any reason. He was a young boy throwing stones against an Army traveling in an armored vehicle. Even if his toy gun might possibly have been perceived as real, it could not threaten the fully protected soldiers. Even more, she asked, why did the soldiers not stop after shooting him in the leg? Why did they have to shoot him in the head? Nevertheless, she said of her decision to donate Ahmed’s organs, “We saw a lot of painful scenes in the hospital. I have seen children in deep need of organs, in deep pain. It doesn’t matter who they are. I didn’t want other children to suffer regardless of who they are. Maybe by this, just one Israeli soldier will decide not to shoot a child. Violence against violence is worthless. This is a message from us to them. A message of peace.”
Her act stunned Israel. A few years before, the relatives of a Jewish victim of a terrorist bombing had donated her organs – many of which saved Palestinian patients. But Ahmed’s organ donation was the first by an Arab for a Jew. Ehud Ohmert, the Prime Minister of Israel, personally called Ahmed’s parents and invited them to his office. He said their act was remarkable and had profoundly affected all of Israel. The stereotype of Palestinians being violent haters had been shattered. The Orthodox Jewish father of a girl who received Ahmed’s heart was reduced to sobbing with gratitude when he met Abla. Her loss of a son had been his gain of a daughter saved – a Palestinian heart beating inside a Jewish girl.
With one gesture, Ahmed’s parents had become the change they wanted to see. They had acknowledged their hurt. They had refused to react with violent speech or actions. They had forgiven despite their deep suffering. They had reached inside themselves to tap the force of love for others. They had become peacemakers. Why could not both Israelis and Palestinians have acted in the same way over this past month? By not doing so, both, both, are to blame.
But once again, I use this example to turn us back toward ourselves. With any of our big or small conflicts, we too can be peacemakers with those around us. We too can purposefully choose to renounce the use of angry, hateful or violent words – against family members, friends, enemies or political opponents. We too can choose not to seek vengeance, in any form, against another. No gossip. No name calling. No bullying. No bitterness. No envy. No hate. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said in echoing the ideals of Gandhi, hate does not end hate. Only love can do that.
It is time for each one of us to decide here and now that we will begin to be the change for peace we want to see in the world. Peace can only be built one heart at a time. Let it begin with us. We must tap into our own inner truth force that deeply wants to love and be loved. May we speak to and about others with gentleness and civility. May we treat our opponents and enemies with respect. May our politics be gentle and civil. May we find the ability to understand and. May we choose to heal our spiritual blindness and begin to really see.
I wish you much peace and joy…
For our talk back time, I’m interested in your thoughts on non-violence in particular and the concept as used by Gandhi and MLK as as a type of force or weapon. It’s been a paradox that non-violent protest combined with stoic suffering is a type of force. We see this play out in Ferguson, MO where the majority are protesting peacefully – most with arms upraised and chanting “Don’t shoot”. The images of that are searing. Saturday morning, many of these non-violent protesters even blocked access by violent looters to a beauty supply store. But other young looters voiced their outrage by smashing windows and looting a liquor store. Some say their is a generational divide with young people expressing their anger and frustration violently saying that is the only way to get the attention of whites and power elites. I want to hold comments to the issue of violence and non-violence if possible – but is violence ever warranted? How do people keep from appearing weak and impotent in the face of violence against them – like white police shooting unarmed black youth?