Thursday, August 18, 2005

Shooting an Elephant

"I and the schoolchildren know,
What everyone must learn.
Those to whom violence is done
do violence in return."--W.H. Auden

Perhaps we can blame it on the Holocaust. Perhaps on Christian anti-semitism. Maybe we should take it all the way back to Cain and Abel.

But listening to reports of Israeli settlers being forcibly evicted from their homes on the Gaza Strip, I keep remembering the man I heard speak a few years ago, at my church. He was a Palestinian, a few years older than me. He was Palestinian, but he had spent his professional career in Dallas, as a Medical Examiner, and had recently retired from that position.

He told us how his family was evicted from their home, when the State of Israel was created. How his father, a jeweler, a man of means settled in the community, was given a few hours to gather what belongings he could carry and leave his house, forever. The men who told him this carried machine guns. They were not going to wait patiently for days, nor give months of notice, or come in force and gently carry people out who refused to leave. Refusal was clearly not an option. They were to leave, and there was no government to relocate them, to re-orient them, no neighborhood to receive them nearby. They were to leave, and where they went was of no concern to the men with the guns.

I know little, shamefully, of the history of modern Israel. I know little about the Balfour Declaration, and hadn't heard of the "Palestinians" until Munich, in '68. I'm afraid I'm like most Americans in that regard. It took me decades to understand the anger of the PLO that erupted in Germany that year, and I still don't condone it, or excuse it.

But violence has deep roots. Whenever we excuse it as being in our name, the name of our group, for the sake of our idea of "right," we simply condone violence: nothing more, nothing less. Might does not make right, we say; and then we employ it to do just that. We ask the Palestinians to reject violence, condemn Hezbollah for claiming their violence drove Israel to abandon Gaza, and then look on passively, even approvingly, as Israel uses violence to achieve its ends, as we use violence in Afghanistan and Iraq to pursue our "good."

Violence has deep roots, and it is always personal. I don't know the history of the formation of modern Israel, and I don't intend to take sides with this posting. Every Sunday, I join in the community's prayer for "the Church in Israel, and the church in Palestine." And I remember the story of that man; and I remember, as ministry has taught me, as one of my seminary professors taught me, that "life is messy." It is messy, because it is made up of the stories of individuals. Not of great events, or the zeitgeist, or historical currents upon which we are borne as chips on a stream. It is made up of the lives of individuals. And their stories are the hardest things of all for us to deal with, because they are concrete. They are personal.

We prefer the abstract, because it is impersonal. We prefer the "big picture," because it leaves us out. One of George Orwell's best works was his essay, "Shooting an Elephant." It reminds us that, not only is the individual implicated in the "sweep of history." The individual is responsible for it. History is not made of impersonal forces. It is made of human actions, individual stories. History is messy.

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