Monday, April 29, 2019

"Treacherous & Unintended Consequences"

The following are brief remarks given at Christian Community Church on April 28, reflecting on the recent violent acts that filled the news, including the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka. They have been lightly edited.

CW: Mass and state-sanctioned violence, anti-semitism

Last Sunday, April 21, coordinated attacks at Christian churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka killed approximately 253 people and injured more than 500 more. ( ) The investigation is ongoing, but Sri Lankan officials announced that the attacks were carried out by a “local Islamist militant group, with suspected international assistance.” The Sri Lankan State Minister of Defense further speculated that the bombings were in retaliation for the mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, last March. And, whether it is true or not, the “Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, which it said … targeted Christians and ‘citizens of Crusader coalition states.’” ( )

Yesterday morning, a 19 year old with a semiautomatic rifle opened fire at the Chabad Synagogue of Poway, near San Diego, California. One person was killed, three were wounded. Last October, 11 people were killed at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. It is part of a pattern; hate incidents targeting Jews rose 57% from 2016 to 2017, and by over 60% in Germany and 74% in France in 2018. ( ) The young white man who was apprehended yesterday was part of this resurgence. Law enforcement reported that he had written an anti-semitic manifesto online, where he said “he was willing to sacrifice his future ‘for the sake of my people.’” He also claimed to have committed arson in an attempt to destroy the Islamic Center in Escondido last March, an act that he said was also inspired by the attacks at the mosques in Christchurch.” ( )

Meanwhile, as the New York Times reported this week, 
“For the first time since the United Nations began documenting civilian casualties in Afghanistan a decade ago, more civilians are being killed by Afghan government and American forces than by the Taliban and other insurgents….” 
In real life terms, that means that 305 civilians were killed and 303 more were wounded in the last few months. (

The US Special Representative in Afghanistan expressed distress and grief in response to the report, saying: 
“We deeply regret any loss of innocent life during military operations. We never target innocents.” ( )
Of course, intentions here are important, and each violent act has its own context, history, and impact. We don’t want to minimize that, but we can also recognize that the results share a tragic similarity: the irrevocable loss of life, of love, and of human possibility. As the Special Representative further expressed: 
“War is treacherous & unintended consequences are devastating.” (ibid.)
It is always easier, and faster, to destroy than to create. It is easier, and faster, to inflict trauma than heal from it. Bombs go off in an instant, and the world is changed for decades, even generations. The humans who survive, who suffer, bear the wounds. In many of these cases, we can pick out a familiar story line, a tale of retaliation and revenge, of good and evil, and of heroes and monsters - depending on which group you identify with. But if we look closer, we find ourselves in the middle of very long stories, and that is a challenge. Stories with nuance and complexity require a lot of work and a long attention span, and we are accustomed to exciting movies with easily recognized roles. We want to know whom to cheer for – and grieve for - and be assured the story will be wrapped up in a few hours, never mind the plot holes. But if we want to respond to violence and hate in our world in ways that bring healing and change, we have to be willing to complicate the story.

This is important to remember because it is tempting to look away, to be overcome by either how tragic or how banal mass violence, both direct and structural, has become. Or it may be tempting to stoke our own inclinations towards violence, and dehumanize those we name as enemies. But beyond the anger we feel, or the grief we feel; beyond tragic stories we will continue to hear of those who suffered, or the uplifting stories of those who acted compassionately in the midst of the terror, we have to open up to the difficult questions that, as a society, we tend to resist and ignore, again and again: can these incidents be resolved? Can we find a way, not only to grieve, but also to heal? Can we find ways to create societies where you don’t have to be afraid to go to a church, temple, mosque, school, hotel, music concert, or movie? Can we, our communities and governments, stop making empty promises and actually do the work? Because, as Raashid Riza wrote in response to the Easter bombings:
“Promoting love alone will not foster good sustainable communal relationships – unless it is accompanied by tangible systemic interventions that address communal trigger points that could contribute to ethnic or religious tensions. Terror in all its forms must be tackled in due measure … .” ( )
Culturally, we have still not healed from the old wounds, like colonialism and anti-semitism. And we will be tending the wounds inflicted just in these past weeks for a time to come. As I said before, it is always easier, and faster, to destroy than to create. It is easier, and faster, to inflict trauma than heal from it. But that is no excuse. Violence is, after all, “treacherous & unintended consequences are devastating.” We have been taking this well worn path for 10,000 years, and we have learned, over and over again, that violence gives birth to more violence. No matter what you think about the necessity of violence in certain circumstances, it is evident that violence is not a sufficient mechanism for creating just, sustainable, restorative communities. If we want to survive as a species, we have to make those “tangible systemic interventions that address communal trigger points that could contribute to ethnic or religious tensions.” We have to address old wounds and new. We have to provide opportunities for healing from trauma, and we have to eliminate economic and sociopolitical injustice. 

It is easy for our responses to violence to become platitudinous, to promote love alone, to give more false promises in the face of tragedy and grief. We can even loudly and honestly proclaim our intentions for holding a space that is open to everyone, but even our best intentions can become meaningless - unless we are moving beyond sentiment and actually building and sustaining community that heals our personal and cultural traumas and works for lasting, tangible systemic changes. 

As long as the bombs are still dropping and the bullets are still flying, as long as oppressive systems are left unchallenged and unchanged, our best intentions remain more of a symbol than a reality. Let’s continually resolve to work together to bring a world into existence where it will go without saying that this community, and every community, is a symbol of our love and care for one another, and everyone is truly welcome.