Saturday, August 23, 2014

Peace Without Justice Is No Peace At All

The word "peace" has a pleasant ring to it, but it is thrown around much too easily, often without much thought as to what it really means and requires. When we think of peace as a desirable thing, it is not a "peace" floating in space, devoid of any social context or history or social obligations. It is a peace that makes people content to refrain from conflict because their needs have been satisfied to some extent, and because they feel respected and understood by those with whom they have been in conflict or disagreement.

In a couple of situations that have been very much in the news in recent weeks, the Palestinian-Israeli attacks, counter-attacks and ongoing animosity, and the tensions between protesters and police in Ferguson, Missouri following the police slaying of the unarmed, 18 year old young black man, Michael Brown, I note the tendency among many observers, commentators and politicians to plead for "peace," by which they mean an immediate cessation of violence. This make me reflect on how, for many people who do not think very often or very deeply about these matters, there is a very simple solution to such conflict situations: just stop fighting. Palestinians, stop shooting rockets and killing Israelis. African-Americans of Ferguson, stop throwing rocks and flaming bottles at the police. Embrace "peace." Lion and lamb, please come together, and all the surrounding sheep will BAAAAA in agreement!

This kind of quick, easy and empty "peace," a cessation of conflict without any resolution of the underlying grievances and injustices that drove the conflict in the first place, is not only simplistic, short-sighted and disrespectful to those who have risked bodily harm or even sacrificed their lives to voice their grievances in these actions, but often ensures that there will be more conflict and violence in the future, for the simmering grievances will not become less heated over time simply because "peace" has been declared or imposed.

In the two cases cited above, most of our news media and political leaders tend to side with whoever the dominant power in the situation is, and to show much more sympathy for their suffering and losses than those of the other side. So, in the violence between the Palestinians and Israelis, we hear much more about how the Israelis are justified in using force against the Palestinians than we do about why the Palestinians are rising up in the first place. If an Israeli civilian such as a mother or a child is killed by a Hamas rocket, this is lamented and dramatized, but less so when Palestinians are killed or have their homes and communities reduced to rubble by Israeli missiles and soldiers, even though many more Palestinians have been killed by Israelis than the reverse, in this and past conflicts as well. Still, the Palestinians are expected to accept the destruction of their communities, pick up the pieces and move on, and live happy, "peaceful" lives despite their poverty, trauma and despair, which Israeli policy enforces through such measure as the "Separation Wall" that seals off the Palestinian territories, the Israeli military-manned checkpoints that they have to pass through on a daily basis, to their great frustration and humiliation, and the Israeli-imposed economic blockade that strangles their economic life and ensures continuing poverty and desperation. Where is the sympathy and understanding for that? It seems to me that in much of our media and among many of our leaders, it is only the suffering of the Israelis that receives attention.

In Ferguson, though there is sympathy expressed for the death of Michael Brown, the protesters who have turned to violence are seen as unreasonable hooligans, unlike the "good" protestors, who march in the daytime in the streets holding signs and flowers without resorting to any violence. The state's governor, Jay Nixon, and senior senator, Claire McCaskill, have also embraced this narrative of "good" peaceful protestors versus "bad" violent ones who dare to threaten the police. When the state authorities send in National Guard forces and fire tear gas at protestors in the streets, this may be questioned as to whether it might be a bit excessive, but is still seen as understandable because something must be done to keep the protestors from getting out of control. This understanding attitude toward police use of force, coupled with an unwillingness to allow citizens to use force to fight back against the force used against them, overlooks the deeper reality that the violent protestors are not merely responding to the slaying of Michael Brown but expressing their burning resentment over months, years, and even decades of abuse and harassment that African-Americans in Ferguson have endured at the hands of the Ferguson police and other local and state authorities. There is the stubborn reality of decades of white flight, white-dominated government agencies, including the police, and economic disinvestment in the Ferguson area that have made the black community as poor and troubled as it is. So, when the African-American community here or elsewhere explodes in violence, it has to be understood as an explosion that was caused first and foremost by a long and continuing historical experience of injustice and suffering. Where is the sympathy and understanding for that? It is my impression that for many in our media and among many of our leaders, it is only the violence of the angry African-American protestors that is condemned, not the social conditions and police brutality that drove them to this point.

If we could have "peace" of the sort that our media and politicians seem to be calling for in these situations, a cessation of violent actions before there is any resolution of the issues driving the violence, what an empty and horrible thing it would be. It would mean that people in such situations as the Palestinian territories or the African-American community in cities like Ferguson would have to accept a life as a disrespected, disempowered second class of people, with no effective ability to oppose those who oppress, brutalize and disenfranchise them, vulnerable at any moment to violent treatment by state authorities, with no means of redress. This would be similar to the kind of peace that the Nazis were hoping to achieve, a nice peaceful society of clean, orderly, white German people after all the dirty and disorderly Jews and Slavs and others had been done away with. It would indeed have been very peaceful, but not at all very just.

Though I regret violence and loss of life of any sort, I do not condemn those in harshly oppressed situations who turn to violence when they reach the desperate conclusion that they have no other way of asserting their needs and concerns. Since the creation of Israel, the grievances of the Palestinians pushed out of their homes and off their land to make way for the nation of Israel have never been fully addressed or resolved. Israeli groups continue to build settlements on land that still, according to international law, belongs to the Palestinians, and so the Palestinians, already disadvantaged by the way in which they were treated during the creation of Israel, see their lands further diminished by these continuing encroachments, while they endure such hardships as the checkpoints and embargoes mentioned above. Who can blame them for exploding into violence, as regrettable as its effects may be? And answer this: would the world pay any attention to the Palestinians, would many people outside Palestine actually know or care about their issues and grievances, if they did not occasionally attack Israel? Do the proponents of empty "peace" expect them to simply suffer and die in silence, so that Israeli communities can flourish in peace and security and never have to worry about the people living right next to them in abominable conditions that they, the Israelis, helped to create and now help to maintain, who live under constant fear of the Israeli police and military? When the Palestinians rise up out of their segregated areas to fire rockets at the Israelis, could this not be compared to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, when the disadvantaged, oppressed Jews decided to fight back courageously against their Nazi oppressors? This is indeed a most painful and horrible irony of the situation of the state of Israel and its troubled co-existence with its Palestinian citizens and neighbors.

And in Ferguson, if there were not violent protestors out in the streets at night throwing Molotov cocktails at the police, would anyone really know or care about the death of Michael Brown and the suffering of the black people of Ferguson? Would the national news media or politicians really pay much attention to quiet, peaceful protests? If the African-Americans there had only protested peacefully, without the drama of violence, would anyone really pay attention or care?

When the long-suffering, oppressed people of any location rise up in violence, it is only because they have been pushed to the brink by authorities that have often preferred to bury them than to care for them. If you want to stop the violence of tomorrow, start thinking about the disadvantaged, underprivileged, and either overtly or subtly oppressed people of today, and start thinking about how we and our institutions and authorities can help those people have a better life today and tomorrow, so that there will be no need for anyone to turn to violence to express the anger, sorrow, humiliation, bitterness and despair that we see in all too many places in our troubled and all too often indifferent world, and don't ask people to respect "law and order" when they have never seen any benefit or justice from that so-called law and so-called order.

Peace without justice is no peace at all. We need peace with justice and caring for the needs of all, not just for certain classes or colors of people, who get to live the good life while others have no life at all.

And to put a Pagan twist on this, I once again reject the narrow tribalism of ethnic division that some Pagans embrace. Just look at Ferguson and all the other communities in America where there is a sharp division between predominantly black and white communities. There are your clearly demarcated tribes, and there you have injustice and hate. Look at Israel and Palestine, and you find the same thing. We need to build bridges, not fences, and break bread together, and look for the good of all humanity, not just one enclave walled off from another and played off against it. Ethnic traditions such as songs, prayers, myths and forms of folk art that come to us from the past are beautiful things, but they are part of the common human heritage and should be respected and enjoyed as such. They should bring us together in moments of sharing and appreciation, and discovery of commonality across the range of diverse expressions of human spirituality and local culture, and not be used to separate us or inflame us against one another.

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