Friday, September 14, 2012

Violence Speaks to Violence

Over the last few days, the headlines have been dominated by tiny groups of people who are primarily talking to each other in the language of violence. While the line between peaceful protest and violent outrage is sometimes fuzzy, it's clear that the airwaves are now being dominated by those shouting in anger. The murder of the American ambassador in Libya and the storming of embassies in Yemen and Egypt have captured everyone's attention - the world stage has been seized by the violent.

This is not only true of Muslims across the Islamic World (although most coverage is now going to protests and the potential for further violence). Here in the US, the voices that have been heard most loudly are those that lashed out in anger or disdain (as the Romney campaign did in its initial reaction to events) and, paradoxically, those that created the offending movie in the first place. The President, the Secretary of State, and a host of others have been forced to respond to this agenda of violence, anger, and hate - in the midst of the microscope that is a presidential campaign.

We are, by and large, listening to the violent and angry, and then turning to our leaders to ask "what are you going to do about it?" In so doing, we are missing a fundamental truth and we have lost our own voice in the maelstrom.

The truth we're missing is that, although violence and anger are loud, volume does not mean size. The number of people involved in making the film appears to be remarkably small - and based on news reports, some of those didn't understand what the film would ultimately be about. There appears to have been a very small handful of people whose vitriolic hatred of Islam pushed them to make and release this video. Theirs is a violence of word and voice, if not bullets and fire.

Too, the crowds that have mobbed and attacked US embassies overseas may in fact be relatively small groups of people. The group that attacked the US embassy in Sanaa, Yemen numbered a few hundred in a city of two million. Reports have emerged of others in Yemen, Libya and Egypt who are ashamed of their countrymen, including some moving photos of an anti-violence rally in Benghazi. These voices are not as loud as the voices of anger and violence - but they may well be more numerous.

There is, of course, a third group: those that sympathize with the violence (on either side), that harbor the anger and support those who lash out. We don't know how large this group is, either. The lines are not clearly drawn. But I have seen enough anti-Muslim snark, even among my own FB contacts, to know that there are those who to some degree or another approve of the hatred behind the video. These are the "you're either fer us or agin' us" types whose anger is cloaked in righteous indignation, which often serves as a justification for violence or coercion.

In this kind of environment, violence and anger rule the day. They seize everybody's attention and become the dominant means of dialogue. Violence speaks to violence, while those who want peace are caught in the middle, silenced by the din.

I think that if we're really interested in peace, we have a responsibility to say so. We must first examine ourselves, and make sure we're not falling into the "fer us or agin' us" trap. There are peace-seeking people on all sides - if we want to be among their number, let us first make sure that we're not inadvertently feeding the violence and anger in our own interactions.

Next, we should find a way to speak on behalf of peace. The media probably won't listen - anger and violence sell papers and ads far better - but we should do it anyway. In particular, we should speak on behalf of peace to those around us - to our friends, our neighbors, our co-workers and fellow church-goers, our FB friends, our twitter followers - wherever we have a voice that someone listens to.

Speaking for peace also means listening. We seem to believe that other people will listen to us if we shout loud enough, or are clever enough in our snark - even though we ourselves never listen to such people. If we really speak on behalf of peace, we are willing to listen, to reflect, and to honor and respect others' voices. If a desire for peace unites us, that is enough ground on which to stand in conversation.

We should do this not because speaking for peace will silence the violence and anger, but simply because peace needs a voice. We don't know where our words will travel, or what effect they will have. But we know what will happen if we are silent. If no one speaks peace to the violence and anger around us, the violent and angry will have their way and their wars. We can do better. At the very least, we should try.

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