Ira Chernus  


In 1938, in Germany, the great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel rose to speak about the Nazis. Surprisingly, the rabbi did not point the finger of blame. He did not speak of the horrors that "they" were committing. He spoke in the first person plural: "We have failed to fight for right, for justice, for goodness. As a result we must fight against wrong against injustice, against evil." Then he quoted an even greater rabbi, the saintly mystic Baal Shem Tov: "if a man has beheld evil, it was shown to him in order that he learn his own guilt and repent. For what is shown to him is also within him."

This week, on our television screens, the United States was shown evil. But we were also shown a huge question posed to our nation: Do we have the courage to see that evil within our own land? Do we have the courage to speak in the first person? Will we take any share of responsibility for the complex causes of this evil?

This is difficult for anyone. But it may be especially difficult for those of us raised in the United States. Here we are steeped in a culture of innocence. We learn from our earliest days to believe in the essential goodness of our nation. We learn that even when our country makes "mistakes," it is always guided by the best of intentions. From the very beginnings of our nation, European-Americans wanted to believe that this was a pure land, an Eden, and each of us an Adam or Eve before the Fall.

We learn, too, that this is a uniquely sheltered land. Some say it is guarded by God, others say simply by its favored natural place, between two wide oceans. We expect to be forever safe. If we are indeed as innocent and sheltered as our cultural traditions tell us, it is all the more galling to be attacked out of the blue.

Nothing in our cultural heritage prepares us to think deeply about why this has happened, and certainly not to ask what role we may have played in sowing the seeds of destruction. Everything in our heritage prepares us to point the finger of blame elsewhere, to seek out enemies and vow vengeance against them. We want so badly to believe that if we find the right enemy and take enough vengeance, it will somehow make us once again inviolable.

It is a terribly difficult time to be a pacifist, as the Daily Camera editorialized on the day of the tragedy. But the essence of pacifism is not simply "turning the other cheek." Pacifism means living by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. All life is interrelated. "

Pacifism means recognizing that every act, no matter how evil, arises from an infinite web of human relationships, and that each of us is part of that web. Evil emerges from a long history of abuses and counter-abuses, whose beginning no one can ever recover. The Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Heschel, Dr. King, and so many other great spiritual leaders came to teach us that we are all part of that history. None of us, if we are honest, can stand outside that history of evil and say, "They alone are responsible."

To ask about our share of responsibility does not in any way condone the evil. It does not lessen one whit the responsibility of those who actually did the deed. In death as in life, they remain fully responsible for their own heinous choices.

But pacifists cast the net of responsibility more widely because that is the only way to end the cycle of violence. If we go on putting all the blame on others, and thereby justifying vengeance, we simply perpetuate the suffering and anger that led to the violence.

Once the immediate shock has begun to ease, we would do well to recall the words of the great rabbis. We would do well to ask where, all over the world, our nation has failed to fight for right, for justice, for goodness. Have we committed deeds that, when done by others, we know to be evil? Have we been guilty of slaughtering innocents in the name of causes we believe are right? Has our quest for national security led us to violate the security, and the basic human rights, of others? Have we denied the truth because we are convinced of our innocence? The answers to these questions will be disturbing. But if we can begin to hear them, if we can feel ourselves bound to all other people in a single global garment of destiny¾ we can start to heal the evil. It is not our nation's wound, but the world's wound, that cries out for healing.