On Not Having Answers: an Exercise in Paralysis

On Not Having Answers: an Exercise in Paralysis September 8, 2014

I am troubled by all violence.

I said this once to an Iraqi priest I had come to know and admire, and it provoked a look – almost with a start – of something resonating to the core.  I mention this not to suggest in any way that I can presume to speak for him or anyone living through the Iraqi Church’s present trial, but because, to the contrary, it encapsulates my own inability to speak to a situation like that much at all – and why I feel the need to say something anyway, even if it’s only to acknowledge how little I can say.

The actions of the Islamic State, and the ideology that drives them, horrify and confound me.  I am at an utter loss as to how anyone can spread so much death and destruction so systematically and genuinely believe that they are doing the will of God, or how anyone could even want to serve a God who would be pleased by all this.

It wrenches me to think of anyone equating rabid violence with the service of God.  And wrenching too is the equation of added violence with mercy.  This latter idea came to me by way of a former co-blogger who I believe is one of the most genuinely nonviolent people I have encountered anywhere – certainly in the infamous blogosphere – and more so than me, I suspect, in practice.  So I believe him when he says he came to that conclusion reluctantly.  And my own vastly clearer convictions about what the answer isn’t than any idea of what it is, short of some miraculous metanoia, leave me paralyzed.

Because of this paralysis I have largely refrained from adding commentary of my own, but I have felt a kind of sickened cynicism on seeing reports of humanitarian food drops alongside military airstrikes: I can only see this as feeding the dispossessed with one hand, and the militant zealotry of their persecutors with the other.  Justification aside, it’s been seen all too repeatedly how killing terrorists is like fighting a hydra, that many-headed monster of Greek mythology: cut off one head, and two grow back in its place.  This is not to deny America’s continued responsibility for the mess it had a hand in causing, but the problem is that the state, and especially its military, seems to know only one way of “fixing” things – the same “solution” that contributed so mightily to the problem in the first place.  I could not believe that the original mistake could be fixed with more of the same, even if I wanted to.  Or even if – God help me – some tiny part of me does want to.

Because compounding my ineradicably deep convictions that leave me so troubled by violence, in this case, is a personal and specific fear that makes it suddenly all too easy to identify with the perennial temptation to simply wish certain people away.  It’s a fear concrete enough to test even my resolve not to “trust in princes,” in the words of Psalm 146 which have consoled me in other turbulent times – or to trust in a government that only knows one response to conflict.

On one level, it still seems better to trust convictions over fear, especially if, as I have increasingly thought, most of the harm we humans inflict on each other and ourselves – theologically speaking, most sin – is ultimately rooted in fear.  And yet, the minute I make any pretense of expertise based on one personal connection, I embarrass myself.  Having that one connection in fact only makes me feel my own ignorance more acutely.  Knowing one person directly affected doesn’t make me an expert on anything; it only makes me even sicker over the violence than usual, and more unsure of my ability to say (let alone do) anything at all.

And yet again: I can’t help believing, despite my fear (which is only the faintest shadow of that which Iraqi Christians are facing whether in their country or abroad), that the greatest weapon of Christians anywhere is the ability to say in the face of persecution, in the words of Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai, “What have [we] done … to be treated with such hatred and abuse? You rely on the language of arms, terrorism, violence and influence, but we rely on the language of dialogue, understanding and respect for others.”

At the same time, I also have to deal with the startling words of someone at the heart of the ongoing tragedy, Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, who wrote in a recent letter to Pope Francis and the patriarchs and bishops, “In fact speeches are good for nothing, so too declarations that rehash condemnations and indignation; the same can be said for protest marches.”  Being helpless to do much else, I have to admit this sentence stings.  I hasten to add that Patriarch Sako’s letter is not the literal call to arms that some have selectively made it out to be, as he goes on to say of the major world powers, “They are called to free themselves from their narrow interests and to unite themselves in a political and pacifistic solution that puts an end to this conflict. These powers must vigorously exercise pressure on those who support financially and train militarily these factions and so cut short these sources of violence and radicalisation.”  But that still leaves me with the question: what about the rest of us, who have little left but words?

While the latter statement may relieve a bit of the earlier barb, I am wary of finding too much personal vindication in it, lest I too miss the point.  I may still need to consider that Patriarch Sako is admonishing me in my ignorance, and I may not even have any right to ask him not to deprive me of the one thing I can do.  Yet I have to voice my lament, I have to speak through my paralysis, even if it is no use.  Dare I even hope that he’s wrong on that point?  Right or wrong, I know a voice like his deserves to be heard more than mine does.  Still, at the very least, useful or not, it is a human need to cry out at human suffering, even – or especially – when we don’t know what else to do or say.

Sako concluded his letter with the prayer, “That God may grant us the grace and possibility to overcome this trial, that He removes from all hearts all hatred and violence.”  His prayer reminds me of a line that had come to me one recent morning, which I suddenly seemed to remember hearing somewhere: “Turn the hearts of those who do evil.”  Just that.  The source of this has so far eluded me, although I feel sure I’ve heard it somewhere before.  Wherever it comes from, it has become my prayer.  Can it do any good?  I wish I knew for sure.  But I can only keep coming back to it in the frequent moments when it is all I can say.

Turn the hearts of those who do evil.  Kyrie eleison.

Re-posted from Christian Democracy.

Note: given the nature of this piece as an “exercise in paralysis” and an admission of my own, the aim here is not to provoke an argument.  While thoughtful and honest dialogue is welcome as always, comments will be moderated for civility somewhat more closely than usual. -JS

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