Outrage at the bombing of ISIS is in short supply these past months. There must be strong compliance in this absence of opposition. One can almost hear the unstated logic: “Certain monsters have to be stopped and quickly.” Like the Taliban, ISIS fighters are Islamic extremists who threaten, intimidate, torture and publicly execute. “Something has to be done.” I think we all know what that “something” is.
The urgency compels us. As most of the West watched ISIS take over, it seemed to happen out of nowhere, as sudden and as swift as a desert storm. In a weekend they took over Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, robbed its banks of millions and headed for Baghdad. Reports from the region were that the Arab world, especially Saudi Arabia, was terrified of these well-run bands of men. Could they just roll over the desert into Riyadh?
It is interesting to observe what happens when ISIS begins to roll. A cadre of 30,000 men is determined to take over Syria and Iraq and make them into Islamic States. The military men of Iraq and surrounding countries who are in charge of protecting citizens are in survival panic: “Kill or be killed,” they say. “These monsters, given the chance, will enslave and kill in town after town.”
Even Obama has lost his reluctance to re-engage in Iraq. Congress pressures him to bomb now and not to rule out ground troops if necessary later. Was it the public execution of American journalists that so enraged us? This looks a lot like bait offered us by Isis. Taunt the US into action and like the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Al Qaeda ranks begin to swell. Men in power can’t seem to resist a humiliating taunt.
Or was it the investment of trillions in Iraq for 10 years that now appears wasted in a few days, while Islamic fundamentalists take Iraq and then progressively the Middle East. This begins to look a lot like Viet Nam. We are seen as backing the wrong side with heart, soul and money, and the side we trained so well to take over, dissolves into nothing. Radical extremists have always honed the narrative better than ambivalent moderates.
While this strife is unfolding, the average American is predictably distracted and worried while their representatives are pushing for “containment bombs.” In the press of life, we are content to pay our presidents and congresspersons for the dispatch of good judgment on war tactics.
The Truth That Suffers
What prevents even the average American Christian from attempting to “see” world events as they truly are? What is the blindness that prevents us from seeing what we are supporting? Jesus penetrates this question with prophetic directness: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, when you do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye.” (Matt. 7:3-5). And what is that “log” that prevents us from truly “seeing” what is right in front of us?
Acquisitive fear, an anxiety that is security based, translates: “Someone will take my wealth and harm me. “ A Buddhist saying strikes to the heart of this fear: “They abused me; they beat me; they defeated me; they robbed me. For those who harbor such thoughts, hatred will never cease.”
Acquisitive fear leads to certain behavior patterns. First, there is a fear that emboldens the illusions that keep us “safe.” We humans want to reassure ourselves that we can control the damage we do to “bad” people, that “our” violence doesn’t ricochet. Our surgical violence merely eliminates the deserving enemy “over there” in some foreign land. We have the luxury of this illusion because we don’t directly experience the damage done to the enemy nation, especially to women, civilians and their children, wounded, traumatized and killed.
As for enemy combatants, we take moral satisfaction in “eliminating” them with the conviction that we have successfully “killed the killers.” We can even convince ourselves we have improved this world miraculously by “killing the killing,” a costly illusion because history tells us that we cannot control the violence/retaliation cycle once it starts. The aggressive hate-filled violence of war increases the lust for revenge which increased the killing and makes the world progressively less safe and livable. This blood lust has our minds in primitive mode and our eyes perpetually blinded.
Illusion’s close friend is denial. To kill others we must deny that we are killing ourselves. I imagine killing an enemy possesses for the killer, three rushes of relief. First, that I actually killed and eliminated the bad guy, and that I survived the bad guy’s attempt to kill me. After combat, I might want to convince ourselves that: “We are fine. Whole. Alive!” But, because we have violated human life, fundamentally, there is a good chance we are psychologically damaged for life. How many of the homeless, suicidal, and drug-addicted are combat veterans?
Unfortunately, it took General Douglass MacArthur until the end of his life to utter these words: “War is not only wrong, but contains within itself, the seeds of self-destruction” When we commit war or support war, we have committed a very grave act of denying other humans their God-given right and purpose to live their life. An Iraq combat veteran, recently interviewed on NPR was asked what question he would have for those going into the military to seek a combat role. He offered: “Are you alright with taking the life of another human being, right in front of you, that that person will no longer exist because of your act of killing?” Are we too busy and pre-occupied, even as Christians, to experience the gravity of that question whether soldier or citizen?
“Yes” to homicide is the ultimate human extremity. If our impulse to murder, is “kill or be killed then this, simply put, is primitive brain functioning, a desperate act of survival, of self and tribe. If it is “love of killing another human” then that expresses a twisted euphoria of power “over” and sense of immortality. A third reason could be more complex. Ken Wilber, through Freud and Jung, postulate that the desire to kill another human being can grow out of a need to “kill the lower self.” Sacrifice another and mysteriously avoid death with our murderous aggression as a substitute sacrifice. The impulse here is an elevated desire for personal transcendence to a more enlightened level of being. Because of the madness and trauma of murder, these and other efforts to understand the various psychological states that lead to these extreme acts, may assist us in knowing why so many of us moderns are homicidal or gladly permit homicide.
The Biocide of Humans
To complete the illusion of how we “control the damage of violence,” we finally look to our Earth. When killing our deserving enemies, we fill the earth, water and air with explosives. So relieved at the sight of the vanquished enemy at first, it isn’t until later, that we realize that we have “killed ourselves.” This time, it is the desecration of the sacred earth underfoot that we humans have “sacrificed” so that we alone can survive. Natural world bio systems bleed infectious poison and generations of children reap bodily malformations and a plundered world with this, our legacy of the sword. Wendell Berry uses his poetry to awaken us from our illusions; “The Lords of War sell the earth to buy Fire. They sell the water and air to buy Fire. …Say no to the Lords of War, which is Money, which is Fire.”
We need to take a page from the wisdom of this ecological age. Conservation is the first movement. Live on less. Do without. Similarly, we need to give up knee-jerk reliance on homicidal violence to rid the world of our enemies. The law of the moral universe states experientially: Violence begets more and more unmanageable violence. Our response to ISIS matches prior American invasions into foreign lands throughout recent history, beginning with Viet Nam. We invade with mass destruction. We inflict massive casualties; the enemy regroups; the enemy returns at last victorious. In the bloody process, violence always seems to fail to heal deep wounds or to build a lasting peace.
An Iraqi friend from ISIS-held Mosul who now lives in the US said to me in anguish: “The UN needs bigger weapons to kill ISIS dead.” We will undoubtedly kill many of ISIS. Will they regroup to take over with increased power and influence?
We must learn from those who want to kill us and not be so quick to destroy them. What are they saying about the US that is true? That we invaded their country and Afghanistan, threw the Sunnis out, blessed the executions of high ranking Sunnis, set up military shop in Iraq, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, paid for Israel’s weapons so they could bomb Palestinians for decades? There is enough US complicity in Middle East turmoil here to understand Al Qaeda and ISIS tactics and motivation.
What de-escalates the hatreds is to look within for the answers and not to our governments. To understand and empathize with the suffering of the adversary is how healing is born out of the rubble. It begins with a long, honest look at how we have helped to create these cultural hatreds. A no to the “solution of war” will initiate the peace process; repentance comes later.
While we are neck-deep in war without end in Iraq, it would help if we broke the next steps down. Start first with those we are trying to understand; Al Qaeda and ISIS and those drawn to their ranks. They are chiefly Arab men. Marauding armies throughout the Middle East and around the world are armed men chasing armed men. (They sometimes chase and kill women and children but, to understand this violence, we need to understand men on men violence first). These soldiers are kill or be killed vigilantes, a fairly desperate line of work. To see clearly and to act skillfully while engaged in the extremity of these wars, we must acknowledge the grievous suffering that exists here and perhaps for the first time truly confess our failure of ten years of war.
Gender provides a major pattern in what needs to change. Women in the Middle East are too often absent in civic life while men acting alone have the “deadly advantage,” a very volatile imbalance of masculine and feminine. Away from war toward nonviolence is the direction men must go, especially those who have perpetually failed to resolve conflict with violence. Men both in and around battle must now search for ways of being themselves while learning to de-escalate armed conflict. And how does this more nonviolent male personality look?
This is a more empathetic way of being that exists when one person on one side of the conflict can begin to feel sympathy for another on the warring side. These are more risky and emotional matters of the heart that we typically associate with women, who are more open to the humanity of the other side, less defended. For men to grasp how to experience this more feminine “anima” in their male soul, exactly what model of male would we point to?
The Love That Heals Wounds
At history’s pinnacle of humanity we have Jesus and Buddha. Their lives and words illustrate values that “men who protect need the most. Their message is by word and deed: “Absorb the blows. Don’t reflect them.” “Do not blame or prove guilt and punish the other as blameworthy as your mind might want to make them.” “Do not injure or kill another, no matter how fear-filled they make you.” Instead, “Seek to empathize with the enemy, admit wrongdoing in the conflict, forgive others for their violence and ask forgiveness for yours.” Jesus and Buddha, two historic men with ample history and literature on both, build the only two peace movements that have any lasting hope: unconditional compassion and nonviolent love.
Contemporary men need to claim this love as their own and end the tragic prison of torment they inflict on the world and its people with its wars. As we men begin to recover our God molded selves, we need to simultaneously liberate women from their bondage of oppression at the hands of men, especially those in authority. As women are freed from economic, political and physical persecution, the spirit of this liberated feminine will continue to empower men to exit their prisons of male dominated institutions. Just allowing women to be truly women in the world of their cultures will almost be enough to end war as we know it.
Women oppressed and kept powerless by male-dominated commerce, government and military is a grave threat to all innocents in harm’s way, especially children. War is simply history’s worst child abuse. Yet men stand to gain from women’s freedom. A recent study of single mothers found that when women do better, financially and politically, everyone does better, including their men and children.
Another nonviolent man, The Dalai Lama, admits that compassion for a sadistic oppressor is difficult. As difficult as it is to accept that ISIS, consisting of men caught in the web of inflicting torture and murder, these same men in all of their bravado are suffering. How do we who are nowhere near these men in proximity, get near to them psychically and spiritually? Think of Jesus’ teaching in The Sermon on the Mount: “Do not worry about your life” (Matt. 6:25). Don’t protect yourself. Don’t fret about what you want.” Gandhi, another exemplary male pacifist said: “Our greatness lies not in remaking the world, but in remaking ourselves.” Move away from fear of what ISIS can do to me and toss our anxious fear to the four winds. If we think “security,” we will always and continually suffer fear.
We can begin this “fast from violence” and move away from preoccupation with the conditions of our own life. We will then be freer to help others and alleviate their suffering. Can we remake ourselves by first praying for those in ISIS? These prayers will first soften and change me, the pray-er. We can continue this fast from violence while courageously noticing our own complicity in the continuing ISIS carnage. Notice whenever you feel supportive of the bombing or acknowledge that you are paying for the bombs that are being dropped, or if you feel relief that the bombs are successfully “driving them back.”
To be remade in nonviolent love is a life-long challenge with self- awareness and forgiveness our constant companions. Be content to companion Jesus and Buddha in their historically long and beautifully spirited revolution; indeed, it is the only revolution that can end war and save the souls of the warrior men of this world.