The Moral Imperative for Peacemaking in a Divisive Age
by Todd Deatherage
Executive Director and Co-Founder, Telos
We owe a debt to those among us who have the ability to detach themselves from the era in which we live and help us see the defining characteristics of our age. That’s why I love David Brooks’ columns, and listening to Ted Talks and reading theology.
And while there may be many ways to describe the sea we’re swimming in today in 2017, I think we can all agree that it doesn’t take a lot of detachment to call this an age marked by deep division and polarization. Ironically, maybe that’s the only thing we could all agree on.
We’ve self segregated into communities of the like minded, chosen to get news and information from sources that affirm our own point of view, weaponized social media and created virtual carnage on the internet, and we’ve made idols out of ideologies to such an extent that we give greater allegiance to political leaders we don’t know than to long time friends and leaders we do.
In the face of this, some of us happily join the fray, but many of us, and in particular those who have embraced an ethic of peacemaking, prefer not to take part. We sometimes feel inclined to avoid the hard stuff in order to maintain or effect some semblance of peace. So we put our head down doing what we can until the storm passes.
Even when it comes to an issue like the one that brings us here, many of us have lost enough friends over this, or have been afraid we would, that we’ve not known how to act in a public way.
If that’s you, you’re not alone, but you’re not off the hook. We each have our own entry point into this cause. For some it is long and deeply personal. For others it’s a newer awareness of your own connection to it. But you’ve been cultivating a sense of implication.
To be implicated is to be aware of our own responsibility in how things turn out in the world we live in, in the time we are here. We’re of course not responsible for everything and we have to approach it with a deep sense of humility. But we hold that humility in tension with the courage required of us to take action, because we are responsible for what we know. And those of us here know too much, care too deeply, and have invested ourselves in too many experiences and relationships to walk away.
So what does it look like for us to act humbly and courageously in a deeply divided age. Well, the good news is that the work we’re doing to create a diverse movement of Americans who come together around a contentious issue to pursue a common good is exactly what our culture needs most right now.
We are not papering over the fact that even among us in this room we have important disagreements about things that matter, but we also have been willing to find a way to transcend those differences and come together around one of the most polarizing issues in America today, the Israeli Palestinian conflict.
In that way, what we’re doing here is creating a third way approach, one based on a commitment to universal human dignity, and borne of an understanding that this can’t be a zero sum game. This is deeply countercultural. And I think we have an obligation to take this message more and more into the public square.
Some times we just want to focus our efforts on the humanitarian aspects of the conflict, or stand in solidarity with our friends, even affirming their victimhood.
And many, particularly millennials, have sort of given up on politics. I’m here to say not so fast. Yes, we should show our concern for the weak, the vulnerable, those in need, and those who are afraid and insecure in personal and compassionate ways. But we also have a moral obligation to speak into structures of power and influence. An obligation not just to join the conversation but redirect it.
We live in an era of heat without light. Fires are raging all around us but very little is illuminated. We don’t just need to light candles in the darkness, to borrow a tired cliché, but we need to offer a broad and generous serving of truth as an alternative to invective or falsehood.
We need to counter de-humanizing language, one-sided talking points, and hateful screeds, with the language of truth and compassion, tempered by a spirit of charity. Think that through for a minute.
Truth does matter. Human dignity and the sanctity of every human life matters. With power comes responsibly. Governmental and societal systems and structures can both serve justice and sustain repression. And if there is a moral universe from which these concepts are derived, as I believe there is, we must re-assert them into the conversation.
So, yes, conversations around the Israeli-Palestinian issue need more light and less heat. There’s plenty of overheated and dramatic rhetoric but very little understanding of the issues at the level of individual human lives.
We can say whatever we want, and sometimes we have to speak out because silence is not always a moral option, but we also have to speak in a way that we can be heard, and we have to hear in a spirit of truly listening what others are saying, remembering their humanity before remembering how different they are from us.
More light and less heat to me is also about becoming less reactive. We react in heat, but we respond in light.
Things are bleak in the Holy Land right now. There exists no positive vision for solving the conflict and in such times many gravitate to the extremes.
In my view, the status quo is built too much against the grain of the moral universe to last forever. But we are not a community of optimists, at least when it comes to Israel/Palestine because in this place the pessimists have all the facts. To borrow from a description of Abraham Lincoln, I sometimes think of myself as a “hopeful pessimist.” As John Paul Lederach, who we’ll hear from on Thursday morning, has said: As hopeful pessimists we need to keep our feet on the ground and our heads in the clouds.
When we encounter a broken system, one that goes against the grain of the moral universe, our moral obligation is to live and act in hope. As the Palestinian Christian Mitri Raheb says, hope is not an emotion or a feeling. It’s not the same as optimism. Hope is what you do. We live and act in hopeful ways, and when we do that it opens up the possibility for transformative change.
As the Catholic theologian and write Henri Nouwen said: “Every time in history that men and women have been able to respond to the events of their world as an occasion to change their hearts, an inexhaustible source of generosity and new life has been opened, offering hope far beyond the limits of human prediction.”
One of those who did this was a man named Vaclav Havel. In preparing for this talk on the moral imperative, I’ve once again leaned into his wisdom. For those of you too young to remember, Havel was a playwright in the former Czechoslovakia who refused to be silent or complicit in the face of injustice and falsehood. He challenged a broken but seemingly stable status quo because he believed it was morally bankrupt. He was jailed a number of times for his activism and became a leader in the Velvet Revolution that brought down the Communist regime that imprisoned him.
Havel believed that the essence of our humanity is our responsibility. We are more than mere victims of a cold, impersonal and deterministic universe. We are each responsible for the world we live in. We are implicated.
Writing about the brutal communist system he pushed back against, Havel once noted: We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it. In other words, we are all — though naturally to differing extents — responsible for the operation of the totalitarian machinery. None of us is just its victim. We are all also its co-creators.
He went on to say: The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought.
Havel is one of those figures we’d do well to listen to. It was men and women like him who helped bring about a largely peaceful series of revolutions that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and other communist regimes throughout Europe.
I worked for a time in the building a cross the street, the US State Dept. And I spent nearly four years of my time there working on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning staff when Condoleezza Rice was Secretary.
Rice was born and raised in Alabama and became a Soviet specialist during the Cold War. Her own experience and her sense of history gave her important insights into the world. It was not lost on her an African American woman whose ancestors had been slaves served as the nation’s chief diplomat in a line that began with Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, who was our first Secretary of State.
And as a Soviet specialist, Rice used to say that after the unexpected collapse of the Iron Curtain that what yesterday looked impossible tomorrow may seem inevitable.
We don’t know when or in which direction the unholy status quo of the holy land will break, but we do know that we each have a moral responsibility to live and act in hope. We know that if there is to be a flourishing future for Israelis in the Middle East, there has to be one for Palestinians. And if there is to be a flourishing future for Palestinians, there has to be one for Israelis.
And we have a moral obligation to bring to this issue, and to our divided age, a posture of peacemaking. We are responsible for how things turn out in the world we live in, even in the messiest of situations. To quote Havel one last time: The real test of a man is not how well he plays the role he has invented for himself, but how well he plays the role that destiny assigned to him.
In an age of deep division, perhaps the role we’re being called to play is that of the peacemaker. We don’t know everything, but we do know some things, and silence is not always a moral choice.
And the final thing I will say about our implication is that the problems we are confronting aren’t going away. The things we ignore will only be harder for our children to solve. Passing along the hard work until the next generation not only doesn’t work, but it’s morally irresponsible. There was an abolitionist movement that preceded the American Revolution but we are still dealing with the legacy of our failure to deal justly and rightly with issues of race. Let’s align ourselves to the moral universe not just for own sake but for the sake of those who follow us.