Life or Death

“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying Him, and holding fast to Him; for that means life to you and length of days….” Dt. 30:19

Normally I don’t like to comment on current events–mostly that is a trivial exercise in futility. However, I have on occasion felt like saying something about this or that in the news. Recently, with the tragic events of massacres before our eyes, I feel a need to put some thoughts in writing even if just to clarify my own thinking. Needless to say I cannot depend on the mass media to help me in this clarification–it is more a vehicle of distortion, illusion, manipulation and propaganda to the nth degree. But here and there I find voices that articulate a vision and a more truthful analysis that is helpful in understanding at least something of what happened. And understanding is very important lest we react in a way that simply exacerbates the evil and enhances the darkness of these events. Avoid the simplistic and misleading language of the mass media and most political leaders at this time–don’t be fooled by those clever, manipulative phrases: “war on terror,” “attack on Western freedom of speech,”etc. Let me begin with a quote from my favorite commentator, Chris Hedges:

“The terrorist attack in France that took place at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo was not about free speech. It was not about radical Islam. It did not illustrate the fictitious clash of civilizations. It was a harbinger of an emerging dystopia where the wretched of the earth, deprived of resources to survive, devoid of hope, brutally controlled, belittled and mocked by the privileged who live in the splendor and indolence of the industrial West, lash out in nihilistic fury.”

(As I write this a report came out, from Oxfam I believe, that the top 1% in the world own 50% of the wealth of the world. That leaves the other 99% with the other half.)

We have to be very clear in our words: this murderous act was evil; it can never be justified by any circumstance; the murder of anyone is not to be tolerated, condoned or brushed off as “inevitable” or “necessary.” We also need to acknowledge that ISIS and Boko Haram are as bad as it gets. But once that is said, we need to reflect on the unimaginable darkness, turmoil, pain and delusion that roils within a heart that resorts to such acts. Calling them “terrorists” does absolutely no good except giving us an excuse for killing them…and if you think that solves the problem you are as deluded as our leaders…. But here we need to see this situation and these people with the eyes of Santideva, the great Buddhist teacher of compassion centuries ago. With Santideva we need to seek the healing and liberation of all human beings (indeed of all sentient beings) from the darkness and suffering within them. If we are with Santideva, we will seek this more than our own well-being. (In this regard Santideva fulfills the teachings of Jesus more than most Christians.) If we are to do this truly and realistically, then we have to understand the context and history that created the ground of this madness and nihilism. For this we turn again to Chris Hedges for a full survey of what led up to these murders and the obscurantism of the Western press and Western leaders who seem to have no inkling of a true and real way out of this situation except by more killing:

And for an added voice in harmony with Hedges, there is Mark LeVine, a professor of Middle East History at UC Irvine:

And for a more acerbic analysis of Western reporting and analysis in the Western media, a truly powerful and biting look at what was said about this event, look at Noam Chomsky’s write-up that appeared on the CNN website (a miracle in itself!):

Among the things these men are pointing at is our utter hypocrisy. If you want to get a good close-up look at a terrorist, Mr. Westerner, just take a look in the mirror. We in the West have been perpetrating terror on other populations quite extensively over the centuries. We practiced terrorism and genocide against Native Americans, just as the British have against the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, and the French have against all kinds of Islamic people but especially against the Algerians in Algeria where thousands were tortured and killed. One has to wonder, what made us do all that? What kind of madness has been driving OUR society? Killing civilians? Heck, we’re experts at it. The British and Americans fire bombed Dresden during World War II and hundreds of thousands of civilians died horrific deaths–an act that was meant to terrorize the German people into surrender. Heck, I won’t even mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Never mind the more recent, less dramatic, killing of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. Never mind that we torture people now as a matter of state policy of sorts. (Incidentally, the two brothers who killed all those cartoonists gave indications that what really pushed them were the photos of Americans torturing and humiliating Iraqi men in prison–the photos that were released and made the world papers.)

But here I would like to touch an aspect of this murderous event that has become a very hot topic of contention: the “freedom of speech” that a magazine like Charlie Hebdo has. For many in the West this was the key issue; for liberal and conservative intellectuals, media people and politicians, what was being attacked here was the right to make fun of someone’s religion, in this case it was Islam, and there are all those “radical Islamists” who can’t deal with Western freedom of speech. (And for some of the even more misinformed, it is all Islam that can’t stand freedom of speech.) Well I am all for freedom of speech, but things here are not as simple as all that. A number of Islamic writers have pointed out the hypocrisy here too of Western people.

First of all, there is no such thing as an “absolute freedom of speech.” You cannot jokingly yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre for example because the consequences could be very bad for all. You cannot joke with an airline stewardess about a possible bomb in your suitcase; you won’t end up at your destination I assure you! So there are limits and boundaries to free speech, but where to draw those boundaries is a constant struggle that engages us all, as a people and as individuals. It is probably true that governments should draw as few boundaries and as few limits as possible to free speech, but as individuals maybe we should exercise some discretion in our self-expression (even if we are “politically free” to say something) and ask ourselves what is really behind what we are saying and expressing, what is our real intention and goal, whether we are choosing Life with our words or death. It is that serious sometimes.
When I took a look at some of the stuff Charlie Hebdo was publishing, I began to wonder. There is such a relentless anti-Islam feel to so much of what they presened. From the time of the Arab Spring when Egypt was irrupting with revolution and many Egyptians gave their lives in hope of a change, there is a cartoon of an Egyptian Moslem full of bullit holes, bleeding, and his words are: “The Koran is shit. It can’t stop bullets.” Or how about when they present one of the French government officials, a dark-skinned Moslem woman, when they portray her as a monkey. There’s a feeling here of more than satire but of racism and hatred. And really it is one thing to poke fun at living leaders, politicians, current events, pop figures, etc. mostly they deserve it and it serves a common good to see their foibles exposed. But it seems one should be more sensitive with the key religious symbols of a group of people. So you wonder about that constant relentless barrage of presenting Mohammed in very degrading ways, as if he were responsible for ISIS and Boko Haram. Wittingly or unwittingly they were “pouring gasoline” on a fire, the fire of degradation, poverty, oppression, subjugation, exploitation, etc. Yes, they had “freedom of speech” but really is that all that is to be looked at when you open your mouth to say something? Lots more to be said here, but here are two Moslem commentators saying it much better than me:

I will conclude by giving Brother David Steindl-Rast the last word. He is a very well-known figure in Catholic monasticism and a true voice for peace and nonviolence in the Gandhian tradition. First of all recall from the movie Gandhi a scene late in the movie where he is fasting and almost dying during the great religious strife between Hindus and Moslems in India. Massacres were taking place regularly, hideous murders, unspeakable acts of outrage all around in the name of religion. Gandhi’s only weapon was to fast. At one point where he is almost dying from the fast, a Hindu comes in to see him trying to persuade to stop his fast. He confesses to Gandhi that he has killed a Moslem child by bashing its head in because Moslems had killed his child. He admits to Gandhi that he is “going to hell” for this act. In one of the truly great moments, Gandhi tells him, “I know a way out of hell……” If you have seen the movie you will recall this amazing scene. If you haven’t seen this movie, no description of mine can do justice to what is communicated there….you have to see the movie! In any case, we too faced with the horrors of our time have to find “the way out of hell” for all concerned. We have to find the right language, the right things to say and what not to say, to choose life for ourselves AND for our brothers and sisters everywhere and not to choose death over and over again. So now let us conclude with some wise words from Brother David:

“Accusations achieve nothing unless they go along with sober self-assessment. Our task would be: to face the decadence of our society, to acknowledge it, and to commit ourselves to restoring among us the essential human values we have lost. These three steps are a pre-condition for dialogue with Islamic culture. And only through dialogue, never through polemics or repression, may we hope to prevent terrorism and achieve a peaceful future.”