MICAH the prophet: “Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly.” A focus for this time of renewed war and suffering.
It may seem far too inward-looking in such terrible days to be dwelling on the challenge which the situation in Gaza poses to the pacifist/non-violent conscience. But because my faith family have held a Testimony to peace and to a refusal to bear arms for over 350 years, I believe it necessary to look straight in the face of the question: how do we respond?
Peace – of greatly differing depth and duration – has long been sought through the projection of military force and it is reasonable that many will ask what other solution we have to offer. But the point of crisis, when the destruction seems greatest and hope naive, is the time to do whatever we may to begin reflecting on such a solution, on how we came to this place and on how we may do better for future generations.
William Penn’s words, “Peace can only be secured by justice; never by force of arms”, are a good place to start. In all armed conflict, the horror of the immediate blinds us to its long antecedents. What is unfolding in Gaza did not begin on 7 October and justification by backtracking tends to stop at a point convenient to the justifier. Its fruits are ‘whataboutery’, escalating rage, hatred, division and a drive to revenge. An eye for an eye soon becomes a war crime for a war crime.
This cycle, driven by the reactions of profoundly wounded people, whatever their ‘side’, will be broken neither quickly nor easily. Injustice, dispossession and violence hand hatred down the generations, creating acts of vengeance which in turn, perpetuate more of the same. This is where Micah’s second stricture challenges us. The lashing out of desperately ill-used populations and individuals demands that the exercise of mercy be not dissociated from some awareness of responsibility: “Those to whom evil is done do evil in return.”
From the Balfour Declaration to the Nakba; from the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the further dispossession of so many Palestinians by illegal settlement on the West Bank; to the present horrors unfolding day by day on our news bulletins, injustice has sent out its tentacles, choking each generation with hatred. Where might there have been intervention? What should the powerful have seen which they did not see, or chose not to see? War and its attendant cruelties never come from nowhere. It is always the outcome of failure and self interest, of a foundational lack of vision and of opportunities missed.
Many pacifists will have had the experience of being asked what they ‘would have done in 1939’. The question – especially for those of us born a generation or more after WW2 – is not only meaningless as a ‘gotcha’ – it cannot be answered without asking more questions that may tease out the trail of causation and disintegration. This entails working back through the rise of Nazism, nourished in the dysfunction of the Weimar Republic, itself an outcome of the humiliations of the Versailles Treaty which ended WW1, and the originating rivalries, jealousies and self-interests of the 19th century which brought the clashing imperial egos of European monarchies into armed conflict in 1914. It is too late now to unwind any of these contributions to the second global conflagration of the last century. But it is not too late to consider what we might learn from them by the exercise of humility.
When new states or regional administrations are carved out in the aftermath of conflict, there are always signals and warnings of further flashpoints which are the inevitable outcome of historic and present inequity. The century which has passed since a European power thought it acceptable to give away a country, has seen the unfolding of the current horror in Israel-Palestine. Victors not only write the histories, they draw the maps too. The imperial mindset which considers religion, ethnicity, custom and location to be indices of worth has again shown itself unequal to discharging these responsibilities with discernment. And whilst hindsight is well known to be a wonderful thing, if it does not inform foresight, then it is difficult to see how we are ever to escape from the cycles of futility and destruction which make for war.
In the years which followed the last World War, men and women who were determined not to be trapped in the perpetuation of such cycles, began to found the organisations which provide the foundation of what we now describe as the international rules-based order. The Nuremberg Trials, the Geneva Conventions, the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the scores of human rights treaties, which are now applied at global and regional levels, are an earnest of what can be done by humankind to end recourse to war. It is a matter of grave concern that many politicians are now looking to undermine, ignore or even to seek abolition of many of these hard won protections. Those who would do this in the name of ‘sovereignty’ must be challenged to think hard about the consequences of too narrow and damaging an interpretation of specific interests.
The making of peace in Israel-Palestine, its keeping and flourishing, will be a medium to long term undertaking. In the still longer term, this is the time for nations, international organisations and politicians to reflect with humility – the third component of Micah’s exhortation – on these words of the Quaker scientist and peace campaigner, Kathleen Lonsdale: “No considerations of national or international prestige should prevent the correction of error when it is realised. This is a sine qua non in the search for truth, and is evidence of strength and not of weakness of personal or of national character, even when it means temporary humiliation.”
© Jill Segger (England) is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, The Catholic Herald, Tribune, The Friend and Reform, among other publications. Her acclaimed book Words Out of Silence was published by Ekklesia in 2019. She is an active member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Jill became an honorary associate director in 2010 and is now Ekklesia’s Contributing Editor. She is also a musician and has been a composer. Her recent columns are available here and her pre-2021 articles can be found here. You can follow Jill on Twitter: @quakerpen