Lately it seems to be harder and harder to come to grips with war. Or the idea of war and what to think of it. I say I’m against war but then I remember WWII and all the pride everyone felt in defeating an enemy that carried out a sneak and cowardly attack against us. (We weren’t happy with our teacher who taught us to sing “Let’s remember pray harder” instead of “Let’s remember Pearl Harbor,” which was to us a much more righteous sentiment.) Where did the idea of a “just war” come from?
The Old Testament is full of war, with Yahweh favoring one side—always the Israelites—against evil enemies—always those who hated the Israelites. It was a David and Goliath world, with the little guy, cheered on by Yahweh, winning against the much stronger foe. Even though Malcolm Gladwell has demonstrated that David, the experienced slinger who has been accurately defending his flock, ought to be, to us, an out-and-out favorite against a lumbering giant weighed down by a hundred pounds of armor, we still seem to see the battle as going the other way.
Is it because we need to see the underdog win? Maybe it’s because we still see ourselves as a raggedy bunch of farmers using our muskets against the majesty of the invincible British empire.
I happened to see the film Gandhi the other day. I had seen it before but I found myself staying with it. And recognizing a reality that haunts us today: the inability to accept the other. After non-violence as a way of life somewhat miraculously accomplished the independence of India from Britain, religious difference within was used to justify the violent need to destroy those whose belief you didn’t share.
And to destroy the one who refused to hate you. Turning the other cheek can be difficult to practice, but Gandhi illustrates the terrible struggle of internalizing and following a life of non-violence, not once you have been hit, but once you have hit back. The need to defend oneself is strong.
“Defend”? Is that what we call it? Joan Chittister’s latest column speaks about these matters. It’s named “The Question Is: What’s the Difference?” and, in her words, it’s “about religious thuggery. It’s about people who are driven by a kind of primitive energy devoid of thought, philosophy, or human compassion. It is thuggery based on the purported directions of a God who they say destroys those who find spiritual wholeness differently than [sic] this God commands. It is thuggery justified by a distorted notion of religion.”
She tells of the present situation in the Middle East in which not only the people, but the buildings, the artifacts, the actual histories of peoples are being destroyed.
“The people under siege in Iraq, in what has been traditionally identified as the Garden of Eden, are caretakers of a culture almost 10,000 years old. The statues that were broken beyond repair were themselves sculpted over 7,000 years before the birth of Jesus and were more than 9,000 years old the day they were destroyed. . . .
“But without a culture, a history, a catalogue of art and music, a panoply of religious ideas and ideals to turn to in times of crisis and doubt, what are we as civilizations? . . . . In short, what is humanity without a history? What does it mean to try to become better tomorrow when yesterday has been reduced to a kind of public black hole?”
Is she blaming the members of the various religious sects who are responsible for this violence? I believe she’s blaming war and war is ultimately contagious.
“What worries me is that not even the cultivated public doctrines of the countries being swept into it — ourselves included — can possibly come out of such thuggery unscathed. . . . Are those who have stooped so low to save this world from barbarism only closer to becoming barbaric themselves as a result?
“After crushing whole villages at one time, using drones instead of scimitars to take the heads off civilians and their children, what shall we ourselves do then for standards? What will this do to the heart of our own country? To civility? To civilization? To religion?
“Then who are the thugs?”
And what is a “just war”?