As a child one of my favourite records was one produced by the Mennonite Central Committee. It was called “I can make peace” and it had a mix of stories and songs. One of the stories was about a family getting up to go to school and how one person’s grumpiness was passed on to the next person until even a friend’s family was affected, but then the reverse happens where someone’s joyfulness is passed on person to person. One story was about an elephant family. The stories and songs start off focused on families and move out to talking about adults, including one about Muriel Lester.
I don’t have a record player anymore, but I have a taped version of it. A few days ago I shared with my children again. The songs are a comfort and inspiration to me, but my children struggled with them. We paused the tape deck over and over. They had trouble with the talk of forgiving and loving one’s enemies. They had trouble with what felt to them like a criticism of their own feelings. What is wrong with being angry? One who felt like had forgiven thing after thing from a friend before deciding the friendship wasn’t worthwhile wondered if the message from the tape was that he is wrong to decide to end the friendship. I assured him it was ok. He made the right decision. I struggled listening to a story of a Quaker woman whose loving behaviour (reminiscent of the priest in Les Miserables) convinced a man to not rob her. I remembered the times as a child when I believed that if I was just loving enough the other kids in school wouldn’t tease me. Needless to say, that didn’t work.
I know from my own experience and from what I’ve read and heard from others that the message to forgive and love one’s enemy can be problematic. The burden of having to forgive can be too hard. It can add guilt, suggest to the person that their own actions caused the wrongs they suffered.
Yet I’m still drawn not just to the music of the “I Can Make Peace” tape but the idea that we have to love our enemies. I want to be loving. I want to love all. Being loving does not mean being a push-over. I can lovingly set and enforce boundaries. I won’t feel guilty about feeling angry or upset. Love is not the opposite of anger. We can still be angry, we can still grieve, we can still be upset over injustices.
Enemies is a weird out of place term for most individuals. We don’t have enemies. We have abusers perhaps, or bullies, or people we dislike. But enemies? Maybe there is another term that holds more relevance? Or maybe it isn’t our own enemies we need to think and speak carefully about.
Reading more this morning about Muriel Lester I came across this description:
For those of us who are committed to nonviolence, the hardest part of social activism is learning to accept, and even embrace, the innate dignity of the perpetrators of injustice, remembering that somewhere buried beneath the lust for power, the personal arrogance and the ideological conceits, the divine spark exists even in Mr. Burns.
I read that sentence over and over again. I think about someone who rebuked me on facebook because I refused to post satirical song lyrics calling the social workers at Ontario Works (welfare) evil. They are workers. We might not like the policies, we might wish that they could do more to help their staff, we might be angry at the times when they do deny things that people are entitled to. But they are humans, and insulting them, trying to make it personal does not help. I was told people like me are standing in the way of real social progress.
I think back to when George Bush was renewing the war on Iraq. I remember going to a peace rally and some people making speeches praising Saddam Hussein and feeling uncomfortable about that. I didn’t think we needed to deny the wrong things Hussein did in order to say that war is wrong. I remember reading political pieces with people writing saying how Saddam Hussein might have done things differently if he had been offered a way out of situations with dignity. To me the war wasn’t an issue of which side was innocent or right or justified – neither were, I thought – but of whether war is the way to move forward or not.
In Canada we just had an election where the Conservative Party offered to create a barbaric cultural practices hotline where people could phone if they thought their neighbour might be engaging in female genital mutilation, honor killings, etc. All of these things could already be reported to 911, the RMCP, or Children’s Aid Society. All of those things are already illegal. The issue wasn’t about stopping violence, it was about trying to get us to see those with a darker skin tone as foreign and dangerous. It was about encouraging people to fear Muslim men in particular as being abusive and to harness that fear to vote for the Conservative party. Some of the candidates put out pamphlets promising they would protect people from jihadists.
Female genital mutilation, honor killings, jihadist, suicide bombers. These are real problems. They are real injustices. We know that there are Muslim people who believe that they must fight and kill others. But we also know that there are Muslim people who do not believe that. We must not generalize to all. We must not judge by the extremists. The Westborough Baptist Church does not represent my Christianity. Jihadism does not represent the beliefs of all Muslims.
During the election period I was reading a lot about C-51, the law that makes encouraging terrorism a crime. I was reading about how some people worried that the law was so vaguely written that painting a picture of the sufferings of people in Palestine could be counted as promoting terrorism. I thought that was a stretch but have since read of people accusing all those who believe that Israel needs to stop its illegal occupation of Palestine of being Jew-haters. People miss the subtlety of being able to be critical of a government without hating the people.
I recently read a number of posts by people who believe that Palestinians are all terrorists in waiting wanting to kill all Jewish people. I do not believe that all Palestinians want to kill Jewish people, though I would not be surprised if many do given the length of oppression and difficulties they face. I know there are Palestinian attacks. I also know they are attacked. I would not tell those directly involved how they should be thinking or feeling about the attacks, but I do think that all of us on the outside have an obligation not to add more hatred to the mix. Seeing the divine spark within terrorists or suicide bombers does not mean supporting their actions. It does mean looking beyond the questions of which group is more violent to trying to talk about how we could bring peace for everyone, including those who happen to share the same religion or place of origin as suicide bombers. We need to find peace for all people. We need to address the needs of all people.
Maybe making peace means watching how we speak about criminals. We might feel like we are trying to protect children by taking a hard line on crime, not stopping to think about the effects of incarceration on the children of those incarcerated. I’m not saying all incarceration is wrong, but that the knee jerk desire for punishment can create more problems. Misguided facebook memes can add to public perception that stricter harsher punishment is the only way to go.
Maybe making peace means trying to reach beyond our echo chambers to talk with those we disagree with. Maybe it means challenging our friends on facebook when they post messages of discrimination. Maybe it means learning more about issues, challenging ourselves to question our own understanding of them.
The language of loving one’s enemy can be vastly misused, and people should not feel guilty for their anger over abuse they have suffered, but at the same time we still need to look for ways to make peace. We need to recognize the divine spark within the perpetrators of injustice, even while we work to remove their power to continue the injustice.