When will we ever learn?

21 Jan

The words of Peter, Paul and Mary’s song, ‘When will they every learn?’ spring to mind, as we engage yet again in a bombing war in Iraq and adjoining countries. Except it is not ‘they’, but us. When will we ever learn? Tony Abbott was quite right yesterday when he said that you cannot defeat an idea with bombs. That’s an idea I came to, at age 16, when we were supposedly defeating communism in Vietnam.
This last two weeks I have (finally!) completed the biography of Dag Hammarskjöld, second Secretary-General of the United Nations. (Hammarskjöld: A life by Roger Lipsey.)
What struck me very powerfully, as I read of Hammarskjöld’s engagement in negotiations around the Suez crisis in 1956 and a number of the subsequent struggles in the Middle East, is that the issues are exactly the same still today. There have been some significant changes in territories—at that time Egypt included the area we now know as the Gaza Strip (before the 6 day war of 1967) and Israel of course was a relatively ‘new’ country in the sense of its modern, political structure. But the basic issues of polarisation, thinking the worst of one’s enemies and being unable to see how others see one’s own actions, and the basic futility of war—all the same. It just made me wonder whether we ever learn.
Hammarskjöld was such a clear and succinct writer that it is worth quoting several of his letters or papers from this time. This first quotation is from an address given in May 1956 and offers great insight into the power of fear to cause both aggression and blindness:

We all know how, when moved by fear, people may act against what others see as their own best interest. … We have seen how, when influenced by such actions, the course of events may take on aspects of inexorable fatality up to the point where, out of sheer weariness, no resistance to the gravitation of open conflict any longer seems possible. This is a constantly repeated tragedy.

… Can there be a greater challenge for us to work for a recognition of the dignity of man (sic) as would eliminate the fear which is eating our world like a cancer?
…If, at long last, the recognition of human dignity means to give others freedom from fear, then that recognition cannot be simply a question of passive acceptance. It is a question of the positive action that must be taken in order to kill fear.
This is not a question of abstract ethical principles. I state conclusions from some very concrete recent experiences. It is when we all play safe that we create a world of the utmost insecurity. It is when we all play safe that fatality will lead us to our doom. (Quote from page 249)

What is clear here is that Hammarskjöld did not see his task of peace-making as a passive stance at all. He is very strong in his rejection of ‘doing nothing’ in order to ‘play it safe’. Rather, his basic focus is upon advocacy for human dignity—the dignity of all persons and peoples. It was from this stance that he appealed to each side of a conflict, in the quest for common ground and thus a way towards a common future.

The strength of his conviction was also evident at times in ‘white hot’ anger at what he saw as the wilful blindness of combatants, both to their own motivations and to the reality of the situation. On one such occasion, he wrote to David Ben-Gurion, Prime Minister of Israel, whom he actually admired but here challenges vehemently. What is described here is so clearly true of many situations today, where threats (and actual aggression) are thought to create ‘peace’:

The situation is quite clear. You are convinced that a threat of retaliation has a deterrent effect. I am convinced that it is more of an incitement to individual members of the Arab forces than even what has been said by their own Governments. You are convinced that acts of retaliation will stop further incident. I am convinced that they will lead to further incidents as they give both the immediate reason for counteraction from the other side and a legal justification which, if applicable to you, must be equally applicable to the others. You believe that this way< of creating respect for Israel will pave the way for sound coexistence with the Arab peoples. I believe that the policy may postpone indefinitely the time for such coexistence.(Quote from page 252)

It’s interesting that Lipsey describes the warm personal ‘fellowship’ between Hammarskjöld and Ben-Gurion, and also with President Nasser of Egypt. Only within such personal relations could such strong words be expected to reach a constructive outcome, if at all. It is sad to observe that even if for a time there was some kind of a retreat from overt confrontation, these dynamics of fear, threat and retaliation are still very much the order of our time.

So I make two simple conclusions from these brief observations. First, I am in awe of this man’s insight, sense of duty and his exceptional personal strength. His faith was a crucial part of that, as this biography shows, along with his remarkable personal journal, Markings

But then, too, I have to say how sad and troubling it is to note that the issues which were so well described almost 60 years ago are still with us. They were present long before then, of course. For a long time we lived with the illusion of progress: that humans would learn, that things would improve, with education and with better institutions, such as the United Nations.

‘When will they ever learn?’, we sang, in the 1960s. Today, we wonder what it might even mean, ‘to learn’. The alternative cannot be despair. It is all the more vital that we commit ourselves with the same depth of dedication, creativity, passion for human rights and dignity, and in the same deep faith that Hammarskjöld lived by, and died for: not just to a passive ideal of peace, but to peace-making and peace-building.
This was the theme of our conference of theological educators in Rangoon, last January, and will be a significant theme in our curriculum at Whitley College this year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *