The Wellsprings of Violence – Part III
This is the final part of a Sermon delivered by Richard Wiener, who experienced the Holocaust first hand as a Jewish child in his native Germany. Richard is a Ritual Elder in the ManKind Project.
Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring, Maryland
August 28, 2011
So what relevance might my story have for our lives today?
The question of why people hate us and want to harm us has been posed many times since 9/11. Among the answers I often hear is that we are hated out of envy of our standard of living. If only! I suggest that this answer obscures far more profound causes of — if not hatred, then at least deep resentment and anger. For the first time, through modern technology, people in Third World countries can see with their own eyes how we in the West live, and experience resentment at the contrast with their own — often abject – poverty. For us, the Crusades may be half forgotten ancient history . . . but, when George W. Bush described our incursion into Iraq as a “crusade”, Arabs were reminded that it was they who once were called “infidels”, and slaughtered accordingly. We in the West may have forgotten the Spanish conquistadors, but Latin Americans remember who drained their territory of its silver and gold, and left poverty and submission in their wake. We may tell ourselves that ending colonialism after World War II liberated the peoples of Africa and Asia . . . but they know that the economic exploitation of their countries continues to this day, with the collusion of despotic leaders whom it has often served us to install or even to provide with arms.
And if and when they don’t remember, those same leaders are only too ready to tell them whom to blame for the abject conditions under which many of them live.
And given that awareness, is it really so surprising that the accumulated sense of injustice and suppressed rage is now being released, hatred against the West is being stirred up in madrassas, and young men without a future are being seduced into becoming suicide bombers?
Or is this a case of chickens coming home to roost?
And what has been our response to the acting out of the release of this explosive rage? Predictably, in both Europe and in this country, the Muslim has become an object of fear, of suspicion, and for projections of the worst kind. For some, Muslims have become the ”Jews” of our time. Just recall the uproar when, about a year ago, a community center was to be built by a Muslim developer a few blocks from Ground Zero. And then ask yourself: what’s your gut reaction when you see a woman with a head scarf, or a swarthy man with a turban and a full beard . . . going through airport security? Do even you have to remind yourself not to default to stereotyping?
I know from my own experience what it is like to be singled out for special scrutiny, to be considered guilty until proven innocent. And when I see minority men and women singled out in this way – I cringe. And no doubt most of you do as well.
Don’t misunderstand me: we have come a long way in this country. When I served in the U.S. Army in the 1940’s, there were no blacks in my platoon; integration at the battalion level had only just begun. I still recall being on weekend pass in Newport News, Virginia, with a black sergeant buddy. It was a hot day, so we went into a candy store on Washington Street to buy sodas. Sorry, the clerk said, I can sell to you, but not to him. We walked out and went over to Jefferson Street, in the black part of town. And wouldn’t you know that we got the same response . . . in reverse.
And in 1959, over a decade later, when I arrived in Washington, blacks still had to sit in theater balconies.
Today, all that has changed . . . at least for most of us. We see racially mixed and same sex couples walk down the street hand in hand and barely give them a second glance. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is on the verge of becoming history. And yet, can we deny that suspicion and hatred of blacks and Latinos, of gays and lesbians, is still alive and well in many parts of our country? And so long as that is the case, so long as hatemongers like Glenn Beck are free to spread their toxic messages, fear and suspicion continue to roil just beneath the surface of American life.
I have no doubt that all of us here this morning are men and women of good will. Yes, I may be “preaching to the choir;” that is probably true. So then, what is my message?
If there is one thing that we ignore at our peril, it is the risk we take in accepting hate speech as a price we pay for an open society. Yes, tolerance of those with whom we disagree is a critical part of our democracy. But when that tolerance extends to those who incite others to demonize, to insult and to persecute others for their religious beliefs, their race or sexual orientation – for characteristics that are purely personal and that do not hurt anyone else – then we endanger our society in unpredictable ways. It is tantamount to “yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.” It is intended to create fear and panic. And so it clearly meets the definition of “terrorism.”
Hate speech is like a ticking time bomb. When the Nazis first appeared on the scene, when they beat up Jews on the streets and threw stink bombs in crowded theaters, most people regarded them as an annoying nuisance. And when they seized power, they began by introducing labor laws that most people liked. And even when they began to pass the infamous “Nuremberg racial laws,” they did so in small increments, to “test the waters.” By then, we Jews were frightened, but we told ourselves that the Nazis were too radical to last, that they would surely be voted out at the next election.
Famous last words.
Some of you may remember the prescient words of Pastor Niemöller, the minister who spent seven years in Nazi concentration camps until he was liberated at the end of World War II. Here’s what he said:
“First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. And then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
We are all prone to manipulation if only it is done with sufficient finesse. Our consumer society is evidence of that. The famous Orson Welles radio program of the 1940’s, “Invasion from Mars,” caused thousands of people to panic over a supposed landing of aliens in the New Jersey meadows. Sounds incredible now, but it actually happened.
A few weeks ago, I listened to a memorial service for the victims — many of them children – who were slaughtered in Norway by a right-wing extremist. This was a moment of greatest national shock and grief in this most peaceful of countries . . . and yet I heard not a word about revenge. Instead, the focus was on the killer as a human being, as a man who acted out of fear-motivated rage . . . and on the causes of violence, the belief systems that motivate hatred and demonization of others.
No one is born with the intent to kill. In the words of a song from South Pacific, “you’ve got to be taught to hate, you’ve got to be carefully taught . . .” And when rage has been suppressed for a long time, the teaching of hatred, and the incitement to revenge, comes easy. We need to understand that. Yes, of course, our first response must be to defend ourselves from those who come to do us harm . . . but, unless we recognize the source of their rage, we cannot “hear” them . . . we cannot address their grievances in a manner that someday . . . someday . . . may turn the tide of violence.
There always have been – and there always will be – those who cynically incite others to violence in order to achieve their ends. Absolute safety is an illusion. But that does not mean that we are powerless. We can’t eliminate hatred . . . but what we can do is to try to understand the source of that hatred . . . and refrain from confusing self-preservation with vengefulness.
Lest we forget: a potential killer lurks inside every human being. Under sufficient pressure . . . and with sufficient incitement . . . that killer can leap from thought to action. For some, the trigger may be political or economic oppression and exploitation . . . for others, a sense of humiliation and powerlessness. And once we are sufficiently triggered, anything becomes possible . . . even violence . . . especially against strangers on whom we can project our worst fantasies and fears.
In the end, we are the brothers and sisters of all who walk this earth . . . yes, even of those we choose to call “terrorists.” And in these troubled times especially, we must make every effort to gain the trust of those who have long been humiliated and exploited – both by us in the West, and by their own despotic rulers. And a first step for gaining that trust is for us to acknowledge what has been perpetrated in our own names. Before we can move beyond the endless wars, occupations and 24/7 security, we need to make sure we have cleaned up our act.
And when we have done our best to accomplish that, we need to forgive . . . to be forgiven . . . and finally . . . to forgive ourselves.
As the French say, “tout comprendre c’est tout pardoner” (to understand all is to forgive all). Easy to say, hard to do. But ultimately, the only way to move from endless confrontation to the acceptance of our common humanity.
The Journal will publish the second part of Richard’s Sermon on Sept. 6, 2011, the third part on Sept 11, 2011.
– is a deeply personal issue that everyone decides for himself. Sometimes the price is high, sometimes low. But this is not very important for life. Life is an interesting thing. And the price on Viagra – too.