“Are you not like the Children of Cush to me, Children of Israel?—an oracle of Yhwh—Didn’t I bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?” — Amos 9:7
I can remember when I first broke down on September 11, 2001. I had been, as many of us had been, shocked and dumbfounded by the unfolding events and the horrific images on my television screen. Too shocked to weep, too stunned to do anything. But then I heard it reported that on Flight 77, which had crashed into the Pentagon, there had been five children: two children accompanying their parents to Australia, and three sixth-graders traveling to a National Geographic Society field trip in Santa Barbara, California. That was it; I broke down and began to weep.
We adults can seemingly justify all kinds of tragedies that befall each other. We always look for reasons why someone might have had it coming. But not so with children; children are innocent. And more to the point, they represent promise and potential and hope. When a child dies, it hits us in a way that other deaths do not.
The thought of those five children, full of anticipation—for a new country, for an adventure with the National Geographic Society—suddenly and tragically murdered in an act of violence was the devastating element of a day that has been shrouded in pain and tragedy ever since. We hear of the suffering of the innocent and we weep.
How can we not have the same reaction when we hear of Palestinian children killed while playing soccer on a beach? Or when we hear about the psychological trauma endured by children—Israeli and Palestinian alike—under the threat of imminent attack? Or lament the senseless abduction and murder of three Israeli settler teenagers? Or the equally senseless revenge killing of a Palestinian teen and the beating his Palestinian-American cousin?
At times like this—and these times are all-too frequent—there is always a tendency to find someone to blame: It’s Hamas placing arms in civilian areas, it’s the Occupation, it’s radical Islamic incitement, it’s rabid Jewish nationalism, it’s colonialism, it’s Iranian meddling, it’s American Imperialism, and the list goes on. Further, the attempt to place a “starting point” to the current conflict is always one-upped by the identification of a still-earlier wrong perpetrated by the other side.
But if you really want to know who’s to blame, I’ll tell you: I am. You are. We all are.
We are all complicit in systems of violence and power that grind up the innocent on a daily basis. The conflict in Palestine and Israel gets the most media attention, but throughout the world there are millions of innocents who are suffering at this very moment. And we are complicit in all of it.
We give legitimacy to the notion that conflicts between competing claims of right can be resolved through force. We have taken the noble self-sacrifice of soldiers who defend our shores and turned it into a near fetish, celebrating militarism and power, while simultaneously ignoring the very real needs of those same veterans who had put themselves in harm’s way. Much has been made in the media (who are also part of the problem) about the way that Palestinian youth might be radicalized against Israel or the increasing militarization of Israeli society, but we can look around and see increasingly militarized police forces throughout our country. We live in a culture that refers to hard-working professional athletes as “warriors” and the grassy lawns on which they play as “battlefields.” We talk about exercising obscure and arcane parliamentary tricks as the “nuclear option.”
And lest you think the Christians are off the hook, think again. Our churches are replete with militaristic imagery: from hymns like Onward Christian Soldiers, to our frequent appeals to warfare imagery in fundraising “campaigns” or our talk of spiritual “warfare.” We Christians like to think that we stand outside the cycles of violence and suffering, but we don’t: we are complicit in them.
Of the many beautiful truths found in the Hebrew Bible, one of the most profound is the sentiment expressed at the top of this post by the Israelite prophet Amos. The prophet speaks to the people to remind them that God is a God of all peoples. This universalist idea is echoed in the later prophets, especially in Isaiah, and is a fundamental tenet of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths. It is instructive to note that the prophet begins by referring to the “Children of Cush” (Ethiopians) and the “Children of Israel” when he might have used the terms “Cush” and “Israel” the way he does later. Perhaps it’s merely another instance of parallelism in Hebrew poetry and is meant for a little variety. But perhaps it speaks to another truth: we are all Children. Children of Israel. Children of Ishmael. Children of Abraham. Children of Noah.
What would the world be like if we were to weep over every death the way we do over the deaths of children? What if we thought of our domestic policy, our foreign policy, our economic policy, our church practices, our social lives, as part of a grand “child safety program” only instead of encouraging kneepads and bike helmets, we’d be encouraging something more radical: caring for each other as fellow children?
What if we were to examine–really examine–the ways that we are not the helpless bystanders in the world’s violent conflicts but are complicit in the very systems that bring about violence in the first place? What if we stopped pointing fingers and started looking in the mirror?
Well, we might not find that we like what we see. That’s okay. As Peter Rollins points out, “confronting our own monstrosity” is not easy, but it is necessary to real human interaction and compassion. It’s how we move away from a paradigm defined by who’s right and move to one of building relationships. And might be the first step in making real, substantive, structural changes to a world overrun by violence.
And in so doing, we might find renewed meaning in the teaching of Jesus: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the Children of God.”