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Thursday, 8 January 2009

What does courage really look like in a time of violence?

The rhetoric in situations of conflict is always about taking the hard decisions, of being tough and courageous. But what would a display of courage look like in a time of violence?

What is courageous about the use of high technology weapons to kill with no real certainty that the victims will not be civilians? What is courageous about political leaders giving the orders that launch military operations in situations where they have little risk of having to deal up close with the impact of their decision in human terms - the trauma of children in the sort term, frequent bed-wetting, nightmares, and a heartbreaking loss of hope – with he long-term trauma that will devastate for years to come and the trauma of serviceman with increasing prevalence of post traumatic stress disorder and the impact on the lives of their families?

Clarity of moral vision seems to be lacking in the way all actors in the interlocking series of crimes against humanity that is the war in Gaza. No one can "see" a way out or even see clearly enough to truthfully name what is happening.

Gaza is not an "eye for an eye' - though that prescription in its time was intended to be a limitation on the spiral of violence and revenge. Taking only one eye left another so tht a person still had vision. As Simon Barrow points out:

... the modern popular usage of 'an eye for an eye' is entirely misconceived.

... its original intention was not to amplify revenge, but rather to limit it. It is the law of proportionality that it seeks to instantiate - not advocacy of hatred and pre-emptive killing.

In an ancient setting where the tendency was for people to respond to an act of violence by exacting retribution on a grand scale, 'an eye for an eye' was a powerful counter-proposal – a way of saying that you should not go beyond equivalence. It was intended to halt indiscriminate or disproportionate slaughter.

Equally ignored in Christians circles is Christ's broadening and radicalisation of this legal limitation of violence: "You have heard it said, 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'... but now I say to you: love your enemies ... do good to those that curse you... bless those that persecute you." Repay hatred with love, in other words.

Whereas the lex talionis is about limiting violence, the Gospel takes the next step and seeks its abolition. Not, of course, that the churches have found this convenient, especially in cosying up to principalities and powers - where something more 'realistic' was deemed necessary. Thus the development of 'just war' thinking.

As we survey the terrible woundings of the world around us, however, the more radical demands of the rebellious rabbi Jesus surely begin to look more like the deep-healing medicine we so badly need. Amelioration of the sickness of violent hatred is not enough. It must be challenged and replaced.

For as Martin Luther King Jr pointed out, an ethic of proportionate violent response can never be enough to sustain life. Or as he bluntly put it: in the end "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth will leave us all eyeless and toothless." Gandhi said something similar. So have non-religious peacemakers.

Putting the life-affirming ethics of confronting enemies by refusing to use the tools of hatred and war is, of course, exceptionally difficult in a world where the ideology of violence has seeped deep into our institutional and personal life.

But at the very least, it surely ought to be the commitment of those who claim to follow Christ? This is why converting the church to active, interventionist non-violence and conflict transformation remains a vital priority for those who would take the Gospel seriously.
Eyeless in Gaza

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