This post is part of a series summarising some of the arguments in my new book Why Progressives Need God.
I was in Manchester today, and took the photo below of the ‘Islam Against Extremism’ preacher.
Our hearts go out to the injured and bereaved. Words cannot express our feelings. One minute teenagers are having fun in their usual way, the next they are dead or wounded. To the families affected, our sympathy and condolences are due. Churches have been opened, the emergency services engaged and donations given. That all this is happening makes a positive statement about our society.
On a personal level we respond well. Unfortunately we also engage in public responses which do more harm than good.
The suffering, and the need for help, would have been much the same if the deaths and injuries had been caused by car accidents; but the public response would have been very different. People die in car accidents every day. Those deaths are rarely reported outside the local area. When a bomber intentionally causes deaths we respond in a very different way.
Biologically it’s about the amygdala, that part of the brain humans share with our animal ancestors. When somebody comes to attack us the adrenalin flows. We respond energetically. Fight or flight. Us against them.
So our spokespeople come out with their usual pronouncements. We will not let the bombing affect us. We will carry on as before, fearlessly. Except that we expect heightened security because in reality fear is getting to us. We declare the suicide bomber a coward – which leaves me wondering what I am, since I’m far too cowardly to plant a bomb anywhere at all.
These reactions express our self-image: we are patriotic, strong and fearless, they are cowardly terrorists. Such rhetoric does not help the injured and bereaved in the slightest. On the contrary it increases the chances of similar bombings in the uture. The rest of this post explains why.
Peace through power
Except for the people who make money from weapons, we would all like to live in peace. However there are different kinds of peace.
One kind is maintained by repression. The powerful impose their own government on others and prevent resistance. However dissatisfied the powerless are, they cannot do anything about it. If they acquire enough power to rebel, they will.
All through history kings have claimed the right to impose their rule and punish dissidents. In one text that has survived, the ancient Assyrian emperor Sargon II described how he united different nations in his empire ‘to teach them how to fear God and the king’.
The king, as representative of the god Assur, represented order. Wherever he was in control, there was peace, tranquility, and justice, and where he did not rule there was chaos. The king’s duty to bring order to the entire world was the justification for military expansion. This idea pervaded royal rhetoric. All that was foreign was hostile, and all foreigners were like non-human creatures. Images of swamp-rats or bats, lonely, confused, and cowardly, were commonly applied to those outside the king’s control.
Similarly, at the time of Jesus a few centuries later, countless inscriptions praised the Roman emperor Augustus for bringing peace. He had achieved it by victory. If Mark Antony had been victorious, we can be sure that the inscriptions would have described him as the peace-bringer and Augustus as the warmaking enemy.
Peace through victory only lasts as long as the power structure is maintained. The repressed, in their resentment, long for liberation. When, eventually, they get it, there is no guarantee that they will rule more benignly than their enemies did. Peace by repression sows the seeds of the next war.
Peace by consensus
Peace by consensus is less destructive but harder to achieve. The Hebrew texts of the Old Testament witness to it. Whereas Sargon and Augustus believed human wars were the natural condition of humanity because the world was governed by fighting gods, the Hebrews believed the world was governed by a single god of peace – a model for peace between the nations.
This is the reason why the Hebrew word shalom, usually translated ‘peace’, really means much more. It means everything being at its best, the way God intended. Not just the absence of war but positive, harmonious relationships.
According to Luke (19:41-2) when Jesus approached the city of Jerusalem,
he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes’.
Around 200 AD the Christian teacher Clement of Alexandria wrote:
The loud trumpet, when sounded, collects the soldiers, and proclaims war. And shall not Christ, breathing a strain of peace to the ends of the earth, gather together His own soldiers, the soldiers of peace? Well, by His blood, and by the word, He has gathered the bloodless host of peace, and assigned to them the kingdom of heaven. The trumpet of Christ is His Gospel. He hath blown it, and we have heard.
Recently Pope Francis has said:
The more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people, the more responsible you are to act humbly. If you don’t, your power will ruin you, and you will ruin the other. There is a saying in Argentina: “Power is like drinking gin on an empty stomach”. You feel dizzy, you get drunk, you lose your balance, and you will end up hurting yourself and those around you – if you don’t connect your power with humility and tenderness.
True peace cannot be established by victory. Those who win wars are always determined to enhance their own power at the expense of others. Real peace, shalom, can only come about when nobody has that much power over others.
Both Christianity and Islam began with a universalist message – that all humans are created and loved by the one creator God, so we should live together in peace and harmony. It is a tragedy that many today, Christians and Muslims, see their faith as the exact opposite: as a boundary marker, setting us against them.
A peaceful world order must be one where everybody’s life is valued, everybody’s needs are met and everybody can share in the decision-making.
We get one kind of peace when we have the biggest bombs. If they bomb us we bomb them, and we win. Victory. We get the other kind of peace when we make sure they have no wish to bomb us.
The English have a history of running empires. It’s a long time since we lost a war and felt what it’s like to be subjected to a foreign power. So we are horrified when others bomb us, but we often approve of our armed forces bombing others. We don’t notice what is obvious to others: if we don’t want other people to bomb us, we shouldn’t bomb them.
The Independent reports that Britain is now the second biggest arms dealer in the world, with two thirds of its sales going to Middle Eastern countries. Salman Abedi was from a Libyan family. A few years ago Libya was the richest country in Africa. Then it was bombed by Britain, France and the USA, and since then it has not had an effective government. Libyans are among the people drowning in the Mediterranean as they attempt to escape from their devastated homeland.
The people who died in Manchester were not bombers. They just belonged to families in British society, which most of the time wants the wrong kind of peace. A majority of our voters voted for Members of Parliament who supported those bombings in Libya and elsewhere. Most of the victims were other peace-lovers, other teenagers, other concert-goers – but we paid precious little attention to them. Usually the victims of British bombs are not even reported in our media, except when we were told that ‘British forces have succeeded…”
We characteristically assume that our armed forces are doing the right thing, despite the carnage. Those dead people were them, not us. The destruction of their families and villages seemed worth doing to achieve our objectives. We don’t think of them the same way.
We may think the British bombings were all in a good cause. Unlike Craig Murray I don’t claim any knowledge about what is going on behind the scenes. I don’t know any military secrets. The chances are that you don’t either. If I did know the real reasons, I don’t know what I’d think about the motives.
What we do know, though, is that many parts of the world are suffering from wars, and many of their people resent the bombings and shootings from foreigners – whether American, Russian, British or whoever else.
When they are bombed it is the same suffering, the same bereavement, the same questioning ‘How on earth could anybody be so cruel as to do that to those innocent people?’ The same, except on a much bigger scale. We have no right to expect we can do these things without some of the victims seeking destructive and tragic revenge.
So it will not do for the British media to treat suicide bombers like Monday’s as one-off evil monsters.
It will not do for governments to think that heightened security is the only appropriate response.
It will not do for our imaginations to divide killers into patriots and terrorists according to whose side they are on.
Those responses only prepare the ground for the next bombing, the next war.
Of course that bombing makes us anxious and angry. But people do things like that for reasons. If we don’t want it to happen again, we should pay attention to the reasons.
Our overall aim should be not to hate or punish, but to bring these tragedies to an end. To achieve this we should not increase our own power by making others powerless. Instead we should seek true peace, shalom.
Peace in Northern Ireland came when the British Government finally accepted that they would have to negotiate with the IRA. Eventually they recognised that they had no moral right to lay down the law and expect everyone to obey.
The same applies today. It won’t do to stand on our high horse as though we were above criticism, ignoring what our bombs are doing and treating everybody who opposes us as terrorists.
The rhetoric of standing together against terrorists is not innocent. It makes us divide the world into us and them. It invites us to ignore the sufferings of all those people the western powers are attacking.