One of the most cogent things that Barack Obama said during his 2008 presidential campaigns was that he would sit down with America’s enemies since it’s bad strategy to “punish” them by not talking with them. He was widely ridiculed by people whose heroes Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon accomplished their greatest foreign policy achievements with the USSR and China precisely through their willingness to treat America’s enemies with dignity, which happened in a different time before American politics became an adolescent conversation. It has been painful to watch Obama walk back his stance so thoroughly that instead of continuing the somewhat successful (though expensive) counter-insurgency strategy of building relationships with enemies that worked in Iraq, now he sends in drones to speak with bombs and missiles instead. How would the Cuban Missile Crisis have gone if Kennedy had “refused to negotiate with terrorists”? Probably about as well as the Gaza disaster is going for Israel. The Communists were no less ideologically committed to the fall of America than Hamas is committed to the fall of Israel. And yet instead of negotiating with Ahmed al-Jabari, the Hamas military chief, Israel assassinated him, which was a huge strategic blunder if they have a genuine interest in peace.
Jabari was in the process of negotiating a ceasefire with Egyptian intermediaries when he was assassinated. Even if you take the ethical stance that alleged terrorists can be assassinated without a fair trial, this was abominable strategy for the Israelis. What we lose sight of when we see all of Gaza as one “terrorist” blob of people is that there are actually several rival Islamist factions operating there. Since Hamas is in charge, they have a vested interest in social stability which is why they have been willing to expend political capital enforcing ceasefires and punishing other factions when they violate it.
But when Hamas leaders are assassinated and their infrastructure is destroyed, they not only lose the vested interest in stability; they lose the ability to control the other factions who are trying to seize power from Hamas by one-upping them with revolutionary zeal. And who’s going to have the audacity to stop a man in a weeping rage after the loss of his child in an Israeli missile strike from picking up a rocket launcher, aiming it towards Jerusalem, and crying out “Allah Akbar!” The rockets are the product of social chaos, not a coordinated battle strategy. The tragic irony is that by treating Hamas as wholly absent of rational self-interest, Israel has created the circumstance in which rational self-interest loses a voice, not because every Gazan wants to blow up Israel but because the vast majority who want peace can’t really argue with those who don’t when their houses are being blown to pieces.
Michel Foucault had the foresight several decades ago to predict the future of war in his Society Must Be Defended. He said that wars would not be fought between enemies who acknowledged each other as equals the way they once were between European kings. Instead, wars would be imagined as policing actions against criminals or even as a sort of quasi-medical “biopolitics” by which human bacteria is eliminated from the body of global society. This is precisely what the “war on terror” has become. It is a war against an enemy who are not seen as being human beings, who don’t have dreams or favorite flavors of ice cream or jokes that make them laugh or first kisses or times when they’ve helped an old lady cross the street. Here’s the paradox: you become capable of terrorism when you stop see your enemies as human beings who have reasons behind what they’re doing that are worth examining with the hopes of creating a situation where you can live together in peace.
Think about what Gazans have experienced under Israeli occupation: bulldozers that level their houses with 5 minutes’ notice to collect their belongings, checkpoints that keep them from holding steady jobs, missiles that often kill their children regardless of who they’re aimed at. Why would Gazans have any reason to believe that every Israeli Jew, whether civilian or military, is not hell-bent on their complete destruction? That doesn’t legitimate launching rockets at neighborhoods, and you could say the same thing about Israelis living through the era when there really were suicide bombings. But recognizing that tremendous grief and rage are behind the tragically evil things that people do is simply to affirm that healing and peace are possible because they are not categorically and opaquely diabolical.
The more that we circulate emails that use the verses from the Koran or excerpts from the Hamas charter to prove that “those people” aren’t human, the more we make ourselves into people who are capable of savagery, given the right combination of catalysts and opportunities. When people say that Palestine is a fictional concept of a fictional people, they are making themselves comfortable with a final solution for these fictional people. It is only the privilege of our arm-chair abstract vantage point that protects us from being direct participants in monstrosity though we help to perpetuate it from a distance when we delight in hate.
So what was Jesus really telling us to do anyhow when he says to love our enemies? Does that merely mean that we pray that our enemies would come to agree that we’re right and they’re wrong so that we can treat them like human beings after they’ve changed? It’s a farce to say that you love somebody whom you’ve made no effort to understand. When Christians really do love their enemies to the point of genuinely sympathizing with them and seeking to right whatever legitimate wrongs are on their list of grievances, then we are the peacemakers who are called children of God.
The model Jesus gives us is incredibly radical. He told His Father to forgive the people who were in the process of murdering Him. We often gloss over Jesus’ petition from the cross as a sort of pious exclamation that doesn’t have any real meaning, but what if He really meant what He said, fully expecting the Father who grants His Son the authority of judging humanity to honor His request? If that’s the case, then Jesus is in effect saying, “Father, if this is all you’ve got against these people, then I’d like them to join me forever in paradise along with this thief next to me who didn’t say a sinner’s prayer or get baptized or make a profession of faith but asked me to remember him when I come into my kingdom.” That’s radical.
It’s that kind of radicalism that made Martin Luther King, Jr, believe that the racist terrorists in the South who had lynched, tortured, and beaten his people really could become his brothers and sisters. There are many white people alive today throughout the South who threw bricks at black kids trying to integrate their schools. They changed. They’re still changing. It’s a process. It wasn’t a light-switch that flipped and completely disconnected our present with a hideous past that we’re supposed to shut out of our minds. And lest you think that we’re done with racism in America, these are just a few samples of what happened on twitter as a result of our reelection of a black president:
These aren’t irredeemably evil people. They are people who need to be loved into repentance and healing. The reason why I know they can change is because I was a racist and I changed. The black guys I played football with in tenth grade didn’t know what I was saying about black people or the jokes I was telling when I was trying to fit in with other kids who proudly called themselves “rednecks.” When I had a falling out with the redneck kids and they were trying to jump me, it was the black quarterback who told me that he would protect me. He didn’t realize he was loving his enemy but he did and it changed my life.
The people living in Gaza, even those who are part of Hamas, are not a blob of irrational evil any more than white people from the South are on account of the minority of us who still use that horrible word. I have to confess that if I lost my child as “collateral damage” in a missile strike, I might not have the moral strength and courage to refuse violence. Isaiah 2 gives us a beautiful vision of Zion, the mountain of God that belongs to the people who bend swords into plowshares and resolve their grievances peacefully. I long for that Zion to prevail, though I have no idea how Isaiah’s prophecy will be fulfilled.