What is Wrong with these People?
By Charles Rush
April 2, 2006
Matthew 5: 43-44
are nearing the close of Lent, a time for reflection on those parts of ourselves that are contradictory and beyond our own comprehension. As St. Augustine said, 'I am a problem to myself.' This part of us is never entirely resolved throughout our lives. My grandmother, when she was 96, was standing in the middle of the living room one day with a pensive stare on her face. My sister asked if she was okay. She replied, "I've lost my brain and I can't think what I've done with it."… Yes, and neither can I.
Easter Island is located in the South Pacific,
approximately 1500 miles from the nearest island. It was settled, according to
oral tradition, by 150 people that were exiled from the Marquesas Islands about 1000 years ago.
people found this isolated spot, only several miles wide and several miles
long, and settled, prospered, and grew. About a century or two later, dating is
very inexact, another group of 100 people also landed.
The two groups
were both Polynesians, both related distantly. They were distinguished by only
one physical characteristic; the newcomers had short ear lobes, whereas the
original settlers made a custom of fitting jewelry in their ear lobes that made
them droop in an elongated fashion.
were made to work for the original settlers, doing most of the heavy manual
work and other work that the original settlers no longer wanted to do for
themselves. The newcomers were given a space to reside in, set apart from the
original settlers on land that was deemed low rent.
made a life for a couple generations, prospering, we believe to the point that
there were about 20,000 people that lived on the island. All during this time,
the residents set up the statutes that they are famous for, these large stone
images some 30 ft. tall, weighing over 40 tons, in tribute to their ancestors.
Dozens of them, indeed, hundreds, were cut in the quarry, dragged across the
island and erected.
At some point,
a civil war began. We think that it pitted the new comers against the original
residents, at least in the beginning. Why it began? We don't know. What were
the grievances? We can only guess. How did they supply it? We can't tell. But,
by the end of it, it appears to have engulfed every resident of the island. By
the time it was over, nearly all the original trees on the island appear to
have been cut down.
We do know
that the war dragged on for a very long time. When it was finally over all the
statutes on Easter
been dragged down, toppled, broken. The island lay in ruin, the few remaining
inhabitants reduced to hiding in caves on the edge of the ocean. Probably only
a few hundred were alive when the Europeans first made contact sailing around
the tip of South
It is an
enigma, why we are like that. If you stand on the highest point on Easter Island, a burnt out volcano several million
years old, you look 360 degrees at ocean that spans to the horizon. And the
ocean gets deep quick which means that it is also largely empty, as most fish
live near land, the great expanses of ocean have big fish deeper, but there are
no small fish on the surface, hence there are almost no birds either. It is a
deep, haunting expanse in every direction, as far as you can imagine.
there, wondering what it would be like to be a stone age person living on this
island, so far removed from the rest of the world as to be completely cut off,
like the Inuit girl in the Island of the
Blue Dolphin. Isn't it curious that rather than band together and figure
out a way to mutually get off the island itself, they chose to divide
themselves along class lines, and that these divisions became so intense in
their imaginations that they consumed most of their creative imaginations and
turned to violence, retribution, destruction and that they stayed so focused on
that they destroyed their civilization itself, utterly, destroyed their most
precious sacred objects, their temples, everything? Why are we like that? What
is wrong with us that we do this over and over and over?
Two years ago
I had a long evening dinner with a couple that lived in Jerusalem. I was sharing with them an evening
I spent there in 1976 in the Old City. It was an image really from a
former era, an era when Teddy Kolek was the erstwhile Mayor of the city
and both the Jewish and the Palestinian side of the city were bustling with
intellectuals, generally more tolerant, and generally more secular than other
cities in the region. It was late in the evening, I was playing backgammon at a
Tea shop with a Palestinian kid that was in college like me, when I recognized
another American I'd met earlier and invited him to join us, a Jewish college
student from Brandeis University. The three of us sat there over
drinks, long into the evening, sharing observations about the Middle East, with me something of an unofficial
mediator between the Jew and the Muslim because I was an American…
with one of those far off, wistful looks. That Jerusalem is gone. I asked them what it was
like to go to your local coffee shop in the morning once it had been bombed by
a suicide bomber. That was literally the case for the neighborhood where they
began a long lament that lasted nearly ‘til the dawn. She had lived in Jerusalem for seventy years, he for 50. Her
father was one of the original Zionists and had been in the government. They
had raised their family there.
It was one of
the more difficult conversations I've every participated in. Living with
terrorism week in and week out is simply not tenable. What was stranger for
them still was the way that they had begun to accept the abnormal as normal.
I had read in
an article in The New Republic that
more than 70,000 residents of Jerusalem had left in the past couple years.
The author noted that with them went the Israel's intellectuals, their progressives,
those most critical of their own religious zealots. Indeed, some people were
actually moving into Jerusalem, but they are overwhelmingly
Orthodox bent on reclaiming all of the Promised Land.
precipitating event of this mass migration was sobering. Where East meets West
in Jerusalem, there is a wide stretch in the wall
that surrounds Jerusalem. It is wide enough that residents
had erected a park there. In the early evening couples would stroll the wall,
take in the vista of the city; children would play in the park, parents seated
on the benches. The park was shared by Jews, Palestinians, and Christians. It was a
symbol of the way that the residents of Jerusalem itself broke the mold that defined
the fracture between the residents of the West Bank and those of Tel Aviv.
Until… a bomb
went off in the area. The bomb itself wasn't the turning point, it was the
discovery that the kid that set it off was a local resident from the neighborhood. Residents were stunned. 'One of our own has
done this to us' they said. Up to that point, all the suicide bombers were from
Ramallah, somewhere deep in the West Bank, and they came to Jerusalem to make their political point. But
the idea that the neighborhood was unraveling proved a turning point.
told a series of stories that survivors of terror tell, how their son was
supposed to be on a bus but missed it because of an illness and the bus blew up
killing all of his friends, stories of how one person let another go ahead of
them in line at the coffee shop, and that person turned into the human shield
that died in the blast and the other one survived, how anarchy and terror
pervade your consciousness all the day, leading some people to over-control,
others to undifferentiated anxiety and worry, others still to a malaise ridden
resignation to fate in the midst of the arbitrary. All, in their own way, are
stifling, spiritually deadening.
But the most
difficult part of the conversation came later. It was a reflection on the
original purpose of Zionism, of the noble goals and the noble people that
comprised the leadership of that movement, and a wider reflection on the state
of Israel today. Both of them wondered out
loud as to whether the whole thing was ultimately a mistake, whether the very
founding principles that they embarked on a hundred years ago hadn't been
tragically undermined and ironically inverted in such a way that all of this
was for naught.
I was thinking
to myself that this is exactly where you don't want to be when you are 75. It
is so fundamentally threatening on a spiritual level to look back on your
life's work- there in the early part of the summing up phase of your life- and
question everything you have stood for. It is a spiritual worry beyond the
articulation of it to speculate that the future for your grandchildren is
fractured, violent, and full of contradiction. You are watching before you a
culture engulfing… slow, spiraling vortex of malaise that you are helpless to
stop. At the early phase of the 'summing up' phase of your life, what you hope
to see is the semblance of coherence, integration, and- if you are blessed- to
see the strands that will lead toward harmonious unity. You want to have a
sense that your life is coming together, that your life had meaning, and that
you will leave the next generation a foundation on which they can become strong
and begin to actualize what is true, what is good, what is beautiful.
That is not
happening in Israel. Increasingly over the past decade,
we are witnessing two forces that are coalescing in competing versions of
irredentism. Irredentism is the SAT word for the day that simply means the
'recovery of culture, history and land that is occupied by someone else.' Jack
Miles wrote a pithy piece for the Harvard Divinity Bulletin last fall in which
he said that today we have the religiously violent pitted against the violently
The religiously violent are Hamas and the violently religious are the Likud
religious we know all too well. Bill Moyers interviewed quite a few of the
violently religious a couple years ago for PBS. He was on the West Bank, talking to settlers that were
living around Hebron, trying to get a pulse on what is was like to live in
an occupied area. Orthodox Jews have settled around Hebron because it is the reported burial
place for the patriarch Abraham. The man was explaining to Moyers that they
felt justified in developing the area because all of that land had been given
to them by God in the Bible and that promise is still valid today.
At one point,
Moyers got that screwed up face that Westerners get when they encounter this
unqualified, uncompromising religious conviction. He says, "So you don't
think the Palestinians have any legitimate claim to a homeland?" The guy
says, "Of course they do"… and pointing out beyond the Jordan river he says, "It's over there… It's
course of the last thirty years, the percentage of Orthodox has risen
substantially in Israel, and the percentage of secularists
that have a realpolitik approach to the Palestinians has diminished. Likewise,
the religiously violent dimension of Palestine embodied in Hezbollah and Hamas, has
substantially become mainstreamed, while the leadership of intellectuals
gradually become marginalized, symbolized by the transition of political
parties in the last few years. We are living through a period of polarization.
out that this polarization is actually broader and more subtle, the unintended
consequence of the emigration to Israel by Jews from all across the Middle East over the past 50 years.
Historically, there have been sizable Jewish populations in Damascus, in Baghdad, in Beruit,
in Istanbul, in Teheran and they have been there
for millennia. Today, they are almost all gone, thanks to the creation of the
State of Israel in 1948. Slowly, they have almost all emigrated except for a
few places like Sana in Yemen which remains culturally and
politically isolated from the rest of the world. The effect of this is
difficult to put into words, but it has generally encouraged a harder line
between Muslim/Jew, a kind of us/them that contributes more broadly to the
Miles suggests that the way beyond this impasse will likely go right through
religion rather than around it and that will require a whole new way of doing
diplomacy from the way that we have been doing it up until the present.
He says that
generally people have looked at the issue of religion as divisive and have
decided to avoid it, or to put it off until the end, when there were already in
place a set of agreed upon points of negotiation. Generally speaking, we have
encouraged negotiations to take place with more secular leaders that have
focused ostensibly upon tangible items like borders, security, water access.
He points out
the inherent limitations to this approach which we are beginning to understand
across the Middle
first is that a secular approach is viewed by Muslims as
'Western', a concept that they are distrustful of and have
been since at least the British colonization of the Middle East after World War
Whereas in the
West, secularity is the lingua franca of the Enlightenment that allows us to
converse across religious divisions, to the pious Muslim mind, it only signals
a lack of religious rootedness that is morally dubious at best, and probably a
charade behind which ulterior motivations are deflected.
that many of the early attacks by Arabs against the Kibbutzim that were
established by Jewish Zionists are best understood as resistance to Western
control, just as some of the terrorist attacks in Iraq today can be viewed that
way, despite the fact that our press never has come to any clear articulation
of who is what in these attacks. The point is that secularity and 'The West'
are viewed with suspicion whether they are simply misunderstood or not trusted
because of their legacy in the past century.[ii]
he notes that Muslims generally view themselves principally as Muslims first
and national citizens only second. In a Pew Research survey 63% of Jordanians
claimed that they were Muslims first and Jordanians second; only 23% were first
Jordanians and then Muslims.[iii]
For us, it is the other way around. We are first of all Americans and only
secondly Christians or Jews.
three implications of this going forward, the first being that we Americans
think that we come to negotiations as neutral, religiously independent
arbiters. But this assumption is probably not shared by anyone else but
"while Judaists and Islamists hate each other, they have a common enemy in
some of the most powerful breakthroughs that have happened in the past several
years have been between religious Jews and religious Palestinians, though these
have not generally made news. It has been in retreats, camps and other events
that have brought those religious people. What they have found is that shortly
after people are able to voice their frustration, their rage, their sense of
being misunderstood and mistreated, there is, just beneath the surface a deep
spiritual hunger for reconciliation and repentance.
suggests that for American diplomacy to become effective, we should start to
support these religious peace making efforts and bring these events onto the
radar screen. It would be creative in a way that our diplomatic stance as the
World's only Superpower could never be. Beyond that, it may well be the means
to address root causes of alienation that are the precondition to any
substantial peace. It may also be, in other words, the most practical path of
realpolitik, because as many people have noted about the recent unilateral
moves embodied in the symbol of the Wall between Israel and the West Bank, the history of separation without
reconciliation is not good. Typically, we have seen a cycle where violence
ceases for a while under this guise only to re-emerge later in another,
sometimes more virulent form.
is always that faint hope that a third party will actually step to the fore,
that of the Christians. The hope is that they would play the role most suited
to their faith tradition, that of reconciler and bridge builder. I have often
dreamt and prayed that a Christian native to the region would embody the moral
way forward of forgiveness and reconciliation and justice in the manner that
motivated Mohandas Gandhi 60 years ago. Born in the midst of violent conflict,
routine injustice and humiliation, anger, and hatred, Gandhi figured out that
the only genuine resolution was a Spiritual one and he formed that authentic
Spiritual response into a social movement that had political implications.
The history of
the Palestinian Christians to getting involved in this way is not promising but
then neither would one have expected a Hindu who read the New Testament at
Oxford to embody a post-Colonial humanity in South Africa and then in India.
Probably the hope is that the Zeitgeist of our times will make the leader
rather than the other way round. At any rate, I invite you to the 2nd hour
where these and other matters pertaining to Israel and Palestine will be
discussed further, in the recognition that while we only have partial
information and the choices before us are all compromised and ambiguous, and
our own motivations are tainted, we must, nevertheless, do something. That, it
seems to me, is an appropriate way to bring to fulfillment the season of Lent,
praying as we do, for the clarification of our souls. Amen.
Miles, Jack. "Judaist Israel,
Islamist Palestine" The Harvard Divinity Bulletin (Autumn,
2005) pps. 42-53.
Says Miles, "Worse, to the extent that secularity as a zone of religious
neutrality is less well established in the Arab world than in the West, any
statement beginning "I am neither a Jew nor a Christian nor a Muslim"
may seem to approximate the statement "I am an unbeliever and an
infidel" and therefore of dubious morality." P. 49.
P. 49. The survey can be found on
ibid. p. 49.
ibid. p. 50.
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