Roots of Violence

Tom Fox
Tom Fox

You may have heard that four members of Christian Peacemakers Teams were taken hostage by the Sword of Truth Brigades on Nov. 26. They are threatened with death tomorrow (perhaps coincidentally, International Human Rights Day) if Iraqi detainees are not released.

One of those captured is Tom Fox, a Quaker who has been working with CPT (in partnership with Iraqi human rights organizations) for two years. These are some of his thoughts the day before he was abducted:

Why are we here? If I understand the message of God, his response to that question is that we are to take part in the creation of the Peaceable Realm of God. Again, if I understand the message of God, how we take part in the creation of this realm is to love God with all our heart, our mind and our strength and to love our neighbours and enemies as we love God and ourselves. In its essential form, different aspects of love bring about the creation of the realm. …

“As I survey the landscape here in Iraq, dehumanization seems to be the operative means of relating to each other. US forces in their quest to hunt down and kill ‘terrorists’ are as a result of this dehumanizing word, not only killing ‘terrorists,’ but also killing innocent Iraqis: men, women and children in the various towns and villages.

“It seems as if the first step down the road to violence is taken when I dehumanize a person. That violence might stay within my thoughts or find its way into the outer world and become expressed verbally, psychologically, structurally or physically. As soon as I rob a fellow human being of his or her humanity by sticking a dehumanizing label on them, I begin the process that can have, as an end result, torture, injury and death.

“‘Why are we here?’ We are here to root out all aspects of dehumanization that exists within us. We are here to stand with those being dehumanized by oppressors and stand firm against that dehumanization. We are here to stop people, including ourselves, from dehumanizing any of God’s children, no matter how much they dehumanize their own souls.”

For more on this situation, check Faith in Society, which is providing links to news several times each day.

I agree with Fox that dehumanizing people is an implicit, necessary, step in doing violence to each other, that we are all prone to it, and that I am called to do all I can to humanize the world. He’s certainly living his convictions. The world, and the “creation of the realm” (I hope), doesn’t stop with humans, though.

I have in mind another recent news story today as well, which reminds me that it’s not just dehumanizing of people that makes it possible to do violence; dehumanizing, it seems to me, is part of a general blindness to the dignity, createdness, essential spirit, and “thou” within each creature on Earth — humans, animals, and plants alike.

The story I’m referring to is a small one in the scheme of things: 9 elephants who have been mistreated for years are finally — after two years of struggle, politics, fundraising, and negotiating — going to live in a safe, caring, free-roaming environment with streams, ponds, and forests, which mimics as closely as possible their natural habitat, at the 2,700-acre Elephant Sanctuary, Hohenwald, TN. The former owners of the elephants, The Hawthorn Corp. in Richmond, IL, rents elephants, tigers, and lions to circuses, and has been cited for (and admitted to) 19 violations of the Animal Welfare Act in this case, including “failing to establish and maintain programs of veterinary care; failing to handle elephants in a manner that did not cause physical harm, unnecessary discomfort, behavioral stress and trauma; and failing to handle elephants so there was minimal risk of harm to the animals and the public.” They paid a $200,000 civil fine and were ordered to give away their elephants.

hawthornelephantsI see this as another example of what Fox talks about, the violence that comes from robbing a fellow creature of its creatureliness, of its dignity, of its spirit. Fox doesn’t say this, but it seems to follow from what he has said, that we are always in danger of seeing everything but ourselves as “other,” which amounts to a dehumanizing label that makes it easy for me to define you, and these are the labels that pave the path of violence: I am me, you are other; I am American, Iraqis are other; I am Christian, Muslims are other; I am human, and elephants, spiders, bats, oysters, and non-human creatures are other; my family is mine, anything ‘outside’ my family is other; my tribe is mine, anything ‘outside’ my tribe is other; I am an elephant sanctuary supporter, and people who mistreat animals are other; I am a peacemaker, and people who support the war, and terrorists who capture and kill peacemakers, are other ….

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