By Hugh Foy, Pax Christi Scotland executive committee member
Recently in Glasgow I attended the first of the recent demonstrations to campaign against the punitive actions of the Israeli state in Palestine. These of course occurred all over the world shortly after the Israeli government reacted in the aftermath of the horrendous Hamas terrorist attacks. Like many of our members I have been campaigning for the Palestinian cause and attending demonstrations for decades and the swift global response to this state violence was no doubt a product of the history of solidarity across the world, including from Pax Christi Internationally.
The spectrum of positions of nonviolence within Pax Christi both in Scotland and Internationally is diverse as we know. In terms of full transparency, I am what was once called a pacifist. It is not a word that many who hold that position or understanding choose to use any more, it has become a complicated word. I understand its limits and the contemporary complexity, and yet it remains the word that defines my position on violence most accurately. My commitment to non-violence is not only strategic, although I have been blessed with the education and formation in the peace movement that allows me to present those arguments and to believe in their political and campaign effectiveness.
My nonviolence, as for many of us in our movement, has its roots in faith – a faith that on the cross the non-violent messiah reveals a non-violent God.
In the Catholic community there remain many who believe in ‘Just War’, or that, simply put, violence at times transcends good and evil and is inevitable in a sinful world. It is for them a personal or social necessity in specific contexts. Many non-religious people also share this view, and from the midst of those spaces are not only many of the people closest to me but they also include some of the most compassionate people I know. I noted for example a recent Tablet editorial that opposed Israeli State action from a Just War analysis, which may also be an important conversation and position for many in the Church.
This gospel nonviolence commitment is for many of us the non-negotiable, the sine qua non of our Christian ethics and spirituality. I grew up around real violence, participated in real violence as a Catholic growing up in the most Protestant part of Glasgow. My pacifism is a product of what I suppose is now called lived experience, encountered or witnessed. Later I saw violence also in a more nuanced perception, in passive aggression in myself or others, or in the verbal violence of political battles or social media exchange. No ‘actual’ violence, was my “nothing to see here” mentality! But I have had to look and continue to look more deeply at the roots of the violence I experience and encounter inside myself and others.
I believe for so many of us currently, anger as a legitimate response serves to do what emotions are intended to do, offering us internal information and motivating us to make choices, in reaction or response. This is healthy. However, whether we react or respond is a crucial dynamic.
There is so much rage currently, way beyond anger, a step beyond the righteous anger many feel on all sides. This rage is often a defence, a camouflage for the sorrow and helplessness we feel when confronted by the current barbarity. Is it shaped by our unconscious fear and disgust at what we are all capable of as human beings at our worst shown live on our televisions and phones? These are defences. I have them for reasons, as do we all individually and collectively, but they need to be processed, they are to be recognised, to be brought to prayer in search of a grace that will transform us. It forces me to ask what is the other energy behind my rage? what other parts of me are placed into this rage? This is often augmented by the language of Justice concealing the orientation towards revenge communicated by a pliant media, too often complicit in the necessary fictions of the powerful, promulgated in their propaganda.
This requires another prayerful invocation that we may be gifted with the eyes to see those who are the object of our rage the way God sees them. We in the Christian peace movement must be the voices who refuse to allow opponents to become enemies. For me, I need to shift my perspective, and to seek forgiveness for allowing any opponent to become that enemy.
Forgiveness is often experienced as a grace given as a necessity; we cannot do it ourselves. Yet we know it is in forgiving enemies that we are set free. In forgiveness enemies can become opponents to be respected and heard, and then at times become, through the hope and power in the spirit those with which we might dialogue. Only then might we become partners in creating an end to the violence and a new sustainable peace, that if not arriving at a place of mutual respect, can arrive at a place of mutual tolerance and upholding of dignity. Providing the possibility of new life for all who share a history of conflict among them, allowing the violence to stop.
The North of Ireland, close to home for so many of us, is living proof that this can be achieved. Not a perfect peace perhaps but an example of a peace that can become the bedrock of a future hope, and although leaving scars, those scars can serve as a visible reminder. A living memory that for the more peaceful life to be maintained we must not make the mistakes of the past and live with diligent awareness to sustain a culture of peace – a peace by which we might honour those who paid the price of its existence.
An often-misunderstood aspect that I believe is too often attempted from a place of good will but nonetheless mistaken is, we cannot forgive on behalf of others. I am not gifted with the power to forgive on behalf of others who have been victimised. Nor can we demand it of others living in the trauma of their survivor/victimhood. We can only witness to our personal experience of graced forgiveness in our individual and social contexts. Often others can only listen to victims’ pain in silent lament and silent prayer, hoping that those listened to (ourselves and others) can be journeyed with through the path of suffering into a place of healing.
It cannot be forced. It cannot be coerced. Forgiveness cannot be attained by any narcissistic need of the self-appointed proxy who decides it must be done and it must be now.
I once interviewed a Holocaust survivor who poignantly explained both her frustration when this occurred and sadness that those who did this could not see it was a product of their own anxiety and self-focus.
On the Saturday of the demonstration I attended, I passed a Glasgow Friends of Israel stall that was busy and had respectfully engaged people of different viewpoints in discussion. The numbers at the demonstration were as large as I had seen in a long time. The feelings were raw, the speakers spoke from places of hurt, anger, and trauma. Those of us listening could feel and hear that echo among us. It voiced how many in our own country feel genuine anger at those making decisions that impact the real victims far away from us. It is born of despair at the collaboration of those elected to represent us, and those seeking to represent us, and their supporting of actions that have already killed many through destruction by weapons and withdrawal of fundamental human necessities and services.
There were speakers and demonstrators with loved ones directly affected. One spoke of losing fourteen members of his family, another of first being called a terrorist at 13 years of age. Another spoke of how in the media Israelis were ‘murdered,’ but Palestinians were ‘killed.’ Another spoke of being asked on two occasions to speak on the BBC to offer a Palestinian viewpoint, but as the week went on these invitations were withdrawn. I sensed anger, pain, fear, and rage but also hope. I believe many were there because they felt “I have to do something.”
My sense is everyone knew the situation would get worse and it has. Everyone knew the powers by which we were confronted. I was struck by how this will not only be a catastrophe for the Israelis and Palestinians, but will also aggravate and increase the frequency and depth of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia across the world. How in our context can we be voices of peace and yet have a prophetic voice for all victims?
I spent much of the time at the demonstration silently praying while listening. I felt powerless, I felt sorrow, I knew the anger was also there. When we returned to the car my wife told me she had done the same.
Yes, we must act, we must raise our voices for peace and justice, and yet I am left with the question: how do I do this with an open heart? How do I cope with my own hate when it emerges? Sanitising it by pretending it is something else does not help here! Hate and disgust are real in many of our responses I know they have been in mine!
But we have good news: we are not on our own. We have been given a promise that in the cross there is hope; that we are invited to surrender all our negativity in truthful admission to the God who has a plan for each of us and for the world. Surrender is not submission nor is it avoidance, it is a memory that that we have a radical dependence on God, and only in this radical surrender will I find my hate transformed into love, my rage transformed into compassion, my enmity transformed into openness to the other, and my forgiveness not only transformed but incarnated in real change that honours all victims and allows even the perpetrators to own their choices, face the consequences, and participate in the renewal. Only by cooperating with the God of Peace will this resurrection arise.
The demonstrations continue, thank God. Voices speaking truth to power continue. When we despair, when we wonder at the point of our small contributions, we remember that they are part of the aggregate of moments that creates change. We pray for a ceasefire soon but the need for peace in the Middle East will be a long journey now. When we are wondering if we will ever see justice for all in Israel and Palestine when it seems so far away, perhaps the voice of Romero, the saint martyr for peace and justice, can once again open our eyes and hearts with the dangerous memory of Jesus with his words, “We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs. We are Prophets of a future not our own.”
As in times of old many of us may now be like the cathedral builders of the past. In the long arduous work of peace, we will play our part in the creation of cathedrals of peace that we know we may never see come to completion. We pray that God hands are upon ours in its making wherever we are called to build peace, and a true and lasting peace will be seen and lived in its fullness for all our sisters and brothers, Israeli and Palestinian.