ISIS and the Middle East
By Reverend Tom Capo
“They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up swords against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; but they shall all sit under their own vines and fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.” This quote from the Jewish Bible prophet Micah is a statement of hope for our world. I wish I could say that this is happening right now, but I’d have to be blind to the many wars and atrocities that are occurring in so many places. This image of the Tao with peace and justice represents the complexity that we face. I believe all of us would prefer that the human race would sit together peacefully under vines and trees with no-one prodding us, through words or actions, to be afraid, but that, most emphatically, is not the world we live in. How do we balance justice with peace?
What has been on my heart for some time has been the group ISIS, also known as ISL or the Islamic State or Isil or Daesh. This splinter group from the Al-Queda network has taken over vast swaths of Iraq and Syria. They are well armed, extremely well-funded, and have lots of people from around the world volunteering to fight for them. They have used mass killings, beheadings, intimidation, and fear to control their own soldiers as well as the people in the cities that they have taken over. As far as I know, they seem to have no interest in peaceful dialogue as a means to their ends. Unitarian minister, Transcendentalist, orator, and poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “Peace cannot be achieved through violence, it can only be attained through understanding.” So how do we reach an understanding with people who have no interest in any understanding beyond, “join us or die?” How do we reconcile Emerson’s lofty philosophy with the fact of a violent fundamentalist group whose rampage must be halted?
I am increasingly disturbed and, let’s be honest, afraid of what they are doing and what they might do. I am having some flashbacks to feelings that I had during 9-11 when the twin towers were destroyed and the country was afraid—having experienced a catastrophic foreign terrorist attack on United States soil for the first time in modern history. I remember my irrational fear while interacting with a Middle-eastern stranger in a grocery store a few days after the attack. Yet, after a time, I was able to find an inner peace. I chose not to live in fear; I chose not to give power over my behavior to a group that wanted me to be afraid; and I chose not to treat my Middle-eastern and Islamic brothers and sisters differently because of what some extremists chose to do.
What’s helping me cope this time is an experience I had about 6 years ago, while serving in Cedar Rapids. Tensions were high between the Jewish and the Islamic communities due to what was going on in the Middle East. People here in the United States had family and friends who had been wounded or were in imminent danger due to the fighting in Israel. The Rabbi at the time defended the right of the people of Israel to protect themselves against the bombings of innocents, and one of the Imams compared the Israelis’ persecution of the Palestinians along the West Bank to the Holocaust. They took this dialogue to Facebook, and predictably, the tension between the two groups escalated. A number of faith leaders in Cedar Rapids, of which I was one, decided to hold a Peace service on neutral ground, the Unitarian Universalist church that I was serving. Both the Imam and the Rabbi were invited and attended. They consciously put aside their reactive and inflammatory words. The Rabbi said a beautiful, elegant, and loving prayer for the Palestinian children along the West Bank. Then the Iman stood up, thanking the Rabbi for his words while he shook his hand, and then prayed for peace for all the people who live in Israel. Some of you may be sitting there thinking, “so what? That didn’t solve the conflict in the Middle East.” And you’re right, it didn’t. But it did bring peace to our own multi-national community. In a sense, we thought globally and acted locally, and the result was peace between the Jewish and Islamic communities in Cedar Rapids.
The Rabbi prayed for the children, just as we did today in our prayer. But again I wonder what is the balance between protection and love—how do we know when we go too far in one direction, thinking of protection, and believing that we are at war primarily because we are safeguarding the world for our children or our children’s children? Mother Teresa wrote: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” The Rabbi and the Imam remembered that we belong to one another, but there are so many in our world who forget.
I offer you this parable: “[It is] the first day of summer in Omelas, a shimmering city of unbelievable happiness and delight. In Omelas, the summer solstice is celebrated with a glorious festival and a race featuring children on horseback. The vibrant festival atmosphere, however, seems to be an everyday characteristic of the blissful community, whose citizens are intelligent, sophisticated, and cultured. Omelas has no kings, soldiers, priests, or slaves.
Everything about Omelas is so abundantly pleasing; however, the city's constant state of serenity and splendor requires that a single unfortunate child be kept in perpetual filth, darkness, and misery.
Once citizens are old enough to know the truth, most, though initially shocked and disgusted, are ultimately able to come to terms with the fact and resolve to live their lives in such a manner as to make the suffering of the unfortunate child worthwhile. However, a few citizens, young and old, silently walk away from the city, and no one knows where they go. The story ends with ‘The place they go toward is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.’” (summary from Wikipedia)
This is the summary of a story called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Science Fiction Writer, Ursula K. Le Guin. This story reflects on the ethical philosophy of Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a way of determining what is right by determining what constitutes the greatest good for the greatest number, or as philosopher Jeremy Bentham writes: "it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” This story exposes the dilemma of Utilitarianism. Is there value in letting one or a minority of people to suffer and experience injustice, so that the greatest number experience happiness and justice? I remember, not long ago, when I was talking with an aspiring politician, whose main plank was to put into law his pro-life stance; he was trying to defund planned parenthood, outlaw abortion and the morning-after pill. He said that the majority of Iowans stood with him. I asked him if he knew what the tyranny of the majority was. Then I explained that when the majority passed laws that restricted the rights of the minority, it was unjust, and our courts had ruled against the tyranny of the majority again and again. He looked angry and confused. We cannot let one or a minority suffer so that the majority experiences peace and/or justice. OK. So. Let’s keep that statement in mind. “We cannot let one or a minority suffer so that the majority experiences peace and/or justice.” What about murderers? Rapists? Child Abusers? When they are tried, convicted and sentenced, say, to solitary confinement, is that not one suffering, and is not a result that one suffering providing an experience of peace and/or justice for the rest of us? As people of faith, as Unitarian Universalists how do we reconcile that?
And regards ISIS, do we, here in the United States, ignore them, letting them create chaos, destruction, death, while we withdraw into our own safe little isolated country? Are we ready to say, “It is a relatively small group of people, compared to how many people are here in the United States, that is suffering somewhere on the other side of the world and that has nothing really to do with us.” I hear so many people say the United States should no longer be the world’s police force, and I would agree to some extent, but if we do nothing, what happens then? Our country has become involved in stopping ISIS because our government feels it is the “right thing to do.” Do we, as US citizens support bombing or boots-on-the-ground? Do we kill them all, like they say they want to kill us? Do we accept the collateral damage of innocents that will occur, the children? I’m finding I cannot make either of these choices, ignoring or attacking, without feeling sick in the pit of my stomach.
I cannot tell you what the right thing to do is. However, I do believe we cannot ignore what is happening in the Middle East or with ISIS; we cannot just put these conflicts somewhere in the back of our minds pretending they don’t exist. I reflect on the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany. Germans, in order to cope with the atrocities of the Nazi regime, either chose to be blind and ignore them or were so afraid that they would become victims of the atrocities that they did nothing to stop what was happening around them. Martin Niemöller, prominent German anti-Nazi theologian and Lutheran pastor wrote at the time: "In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”
The same thing that happened in Germany is happening in Syria and Iraq. The zeal and excitement of a supposedly “just” holy war to build a new fundamentalist Islamic State is attracting many people from several countries; these mostly young people are frustrated, afraid, or angry due to their economic status, to the prejudice that they have experienced, and/or due to being brainwashed by other fundamentalist. They want to fight alongside ISIS. The emotional response in these young people overwhelms their understanding that we are all connected as human beings.
I want peace in our world. I want justice for all people. How do I, how do we, balance peace and justice in the face of ISIS’s war against humanity? How do we bring these violent fundamentalists to justice? Is it even our role to bring them to justice? I know the potential for peace exists in our world. I saw it in the eyes of the Rabbi and the Imam those many years ago. I know we attained peace locally; why can’t we seem to attain peace globally? Do we need someone to be suffering in our world, for the rest of us to have peace? Isn’t peace and justice supposed to be for everyone? What is the “tipping point,” the “critical mass” at which a peace that is achieved locally becomes seemingly unattainable on a wider scale?
I am not in favor of “boots on the ground”; I am not in favor of bombing people, both the guilty and the innocent into oblivion. But what are we to do? Humans have the potential for atrocities, for evil, for murder, for war. What do we do?
Whether you believe we live in a democracy or, as increasing numbers of people believe, we live in an oligarchy, either way—we can choose to raise our voices and gather others to speak out to protect and witness for peace. We cannot ignore the suffering and the atrocities. We must keep our eyes and ears open to both the atrocities in our world and to our country’s response to those atrocities. I believed that President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq was unjust and so I gathered others and protested in Beaumont where ships were being loaded with war machines and soldiers to go to Iraq. I protested with petitions and with letters to government leaders. I’ve done it before and I will do it again. I will rally, petition, raise my voice to bring attention to unjust actions, and I will need your help both in discernment and in the fight we might face when we speak with our prophetic voice.
Finding a balance between justice and peace is not easy. We are pulled in both directions and all of us can be easily swayed to our reactive side; our fear and anger can sometimes overwhelm us. I remember, not long ago, when one of the members the Unitarian Universalist church that I was serving went to a rally in support of removing any restrictions on access to guns, so adult, non-felony convicted citizens could buy guns to protect themselves from all the violence and crime around them. This UU came to me after the rally, actually feeling guilty because she was so caught up in the frenzy and rhetoric that she, for a few moments, actually supported them. We need each other, because we too can be swayed from our values when we are vulnerable, afraid, angry. We are able to affirm our values more consistently in the company of others who also hold peace and love as primary values—this congregation is such a place for us. We can help each other step back from fear, step back from anger, and find the better path. A path that might eventually lead to a time when humans really will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; when nation shall not lift up swords against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; but they shall all sit under their own vines and fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid. I have seen people turn away from war, rage, and fear, I know it is possible. With your help it is possible. I pray for such a time.