Answering that of God in the perpetrators

Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts.  Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life. Advices & Queries #1, Britain Yearly Meeting, 1994.

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one. George Fox, 1656, quoted in Britain Yearly Meeting, 1994.

At our holocaust remembrance service in Oxford, one of the readings was from Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1986: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim”. Wiesel, a Romanian Jew, survived Auschwitz to become a journalist, university professor and political activist in the United States. In his Nobel speech he went on to speak of Palestinian suffering but he said: “I have faith in the Jewish people. Let Israel be given a chance, let hatred and danger be removed from her horizons, and there will be peace in and around the Holy Land.”

Many Quakers do not share Wiesel’s optimism. It is obvious to them that we should take sides, and which side we should take in Palestine. Israeli military assaults have taken thousands of Palestinian lives. One Friend spoke to me of needing to “cage the wild dog”.

One of the problems with taking sides is that victims and perpetrators change places. Sometimes it is hard to know which is which. When we expand our vision, we may see that both are victims of something much bigger. Usually, if we are really willing to look, we find that we are part of that something.

By taking sides we collude with a narrative of blame that helps perpetuate the cycle of violence. Those we call perpetrators themselves feel victimised, while those we call victims feel justified in seeking revenge.

Is there an alternative? What do love and truth require of us? It is often easier to see a way forward when conflicts are at a smaller scale. I have sometimes been stunned to realise that the wrong I saw someone else committing was a mirror of what I was doing. I have also been amazed by the transformation that has occurred when I made the effort – and it can be a huge effort – to see things from the other person’s point of view, to take responsibility and apologise for my role in the situation.

Of course, this is a world away from the Nazis’ deliberate attempt to exterminate those they saw as subhuman, from Israel’s punitive attacks on Palestinians with apparent indifference to the loss of life, and from the unintentional mass killing of humans and other species in which we are all engaged as we continue to burn fossil fuels. A question that keeps coming up for me is about what it means to answer that of God in the perpetrators of both human and ecological harm.

The starting point for me is recognising that much of the violence in our world is symptomatic of old, deep wounds, embedded in religious liturgy, national narratives and systems of economic and political power. Two writers have particularly helped me in thinking about this. One was Walter Wink, a New Testament theologian who wrote a series of books about “The Powers”. The other was the Quaker, Adam Curle, who spent much of his life working in conflict situations and was the first director of the Bradford Department of Peace Studies.

Part of Walter Wink’s insight is that perpetrators of violence – from those who killed people in Paris and Nigeria recently to our own political leaders – are victims of what he calls the Domination System, as we all are to some degree. The  Domination System, which is closely related to what Jonathan Dale calls the Spirit of the Age, has its life in and through us and our institutions.

Adam Curle draws on Tibetan Buddhism in his analysis of the linked problems of human and ecological violence. He sees the roots as lying in the three kleshas, or poisons, of ignorance (of our true interconnected nature), desire and aggression. These feed the Hydra, the many headed monster obsessed with money and power. We can cut off one head of the monster by resolving a conflict here, or greening a corporation there, but the Hydra has an infinite capacity to grow new heads unless we can stem the flow of poison.

In Curle’s analysis, what is needed is a spiritual awakening, a transformation of individuals and of cultures to recognise the connectedness of everything. It starts with us. When we express anger at other people, when we condemn them as somehow inhuman, or use words like “evil”, whenever we deny our connectedness to them, we are feeding the Hydra.

So if there is a battle between the forces of Light and Darkness, it is played out in all of us. The first step for each of us must be to allow the Light to show us our darkness.

I haven’t generally found it helpful to point out the darkness when I think I see it in other people. It is through being patterns and examples, and at the same time answering that of God in others, that we support them in observing their own darkness and finding the way to new life. It seems to me that we are feeding the Hydra when we try to change other people – when we treat them as objects rather than subjects.

So the second step is to allow the Light to bring us to new life. For me this is a very slow process of observing the kleshas at work in my thoughts and actions, and looking to see what I can change in myself. Often this means seeking advice – and following it.

It is only when I know my own responsibility for the problem – and know it as a positive thing, beyond denial, blame, guilt and shame – that I am ready for the third step: to engage other people in working towards solutions together. This can also be a very slow process. It involves a lot of listening, trying to see things from others’ points of view. It can be very uncomfortable. It can be hard to stay faithful to the process, especially if it seems that time is being lost while the violence continues. But it is probably the only way to break the cycle.

4 thoughts on “Answering that of God in the perpetrators”

  1. These words speak to all of me, and to my proven experimentally, continuing belief in the possibility of transformation. This makes living worthwhile, even in our darkest moments.

  2. This is very challenging, particularly when we see some sort of extreme violence. To recognise causes other than that of the perpetrator is often seen as excusing the perpetrator, especially if the victim may play a role. “Blaming the Victim” is a common condemnation of such thoughts. Thus it is unpopular to criticise the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, or the Palestinian rockets. We like to see moral issues in black and white.

  3. Very thought-provoking ideas Laurie, and wonderfully expressed. I feel sympathy for the principles, and yet my rage at (perceived) injustice is hard to suppress in the case of Palestine. Of course, listening and learning, and being open to understanding the other’s experience is vital. And I also value an approach that I heard set out by Chris Johnstone as part of the Joanna Macy work on climate change (‘the work that reconnects’): we need to use our ‘no’, our ‘yes’ and our ‘wow’ – all three. The work of the hands, saying no, this has to stop now; the work of the head, saying yes, we can think of a better way; and the work of the heart, saying, wow, now we sense that we _are_ connected.

  4. Isn’t this saying that the grey areas are important? That as with climate change issues, we have to examine the parameters if we are to make adequate responses.

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