Thursday, November 30, 2023

Violence, Bible and Palestine

I wonder if you can get your imagination to a place where you feel so persecuted that you can imagine causing harm to the children of the persecutor?

I have been fortunate to have never come anywhere near this point but I have lived a very safe and sheltered life. I can disagree with the government without fear of arrest. My land borders are not disputed. The authorities take no interest in my clothes or sexual orientation. It has been my privilege not to be persecuted.

My formative teenage years had a backdrop of IRA atrocity. I was in Birmingham's Tavern in the Town the night before a bomb exploded there killing many. I've felt fortunate since then. The further away from it I get the closer it seems.

I found it hard to grasp a cause which dealt with the innocent like that.

Then, in 1988, I read, on an album sleeve of all places, this:

'On October 5 1968, a peaceful civil rights march in Derry (including parents and members of the band) was brutally attacked by the Royal Ulster Constabulary on the instructions of the Unionist-controlled Stormont Government. This was followed by the organised attack of a peaceful student march from Belfast to Derry by Unionist extremists setting a precedent of anti-nationalist violence in the subsequent months and culminating in the British Government's decision to draft in its troops to uphold 'law and order'.

'In the face of such belligerent intransigence, it was a small step from demanding civil rights to demanding a complete severance of ties from Britain and the establishment of a Socialist Irish State. The resurgence of the Irish Republican Army, largely dormant from the late '50s, heralded an age where constitutional politics went from sick-joke status to complete irrelevancy for the nationalist community.'

I make no claims about the factual accuracy of the piece. It simply became a personal tipping point. I understood the gut-led emotional reaction of anger of five young Catholic men utterly helpless in the face of aggression. Of course I am not defending the IRA. And the young men responded with music not violence

Psalm 137 was put on the lips of every young person of my generation in 1978 when Boney M charted with By the Rivers of Babylon. In fact the song was a cover, the original dating from 1970. Psalm 137 is a response to a taunt. People in exile in Babylon are asked by their captors to sing one of their Hebrew songs. They respond, I paraphrase, 'How can we sing the Lord's songs in a strange land?' Songs of the Temple won't work elsewhere.

At the end of Psalm 137 is a verse that Boney M chose not to sing. Again to paraphrase, 'Happy (is he) who takes your little ones and bashes their heads against the rocks.' Maybe, as Robert Alter says, it is a good job the captors did not understand the Hebrew in which the song-response to the taunt was delivered. Whether there was ever any intention of acting so, I doubt. But the song tells of a people angry enough to think it.

The religions of the Book have the highest possible care for the non-combatants during war-time. Hebrew Scriptures emphasise reasonable response (eye for eye, tooth for tooth). The New Testament suggests loving your enemy and praying for those who persecute you. The Quran specifically prohibits the killing of innocent people.

People often deride religions for causing wars. These days it is usually land-grabbing that causes wars and religion is sometimes enlisted for justification on either or both sides. The Hebrew Scriptures are a story of God-condoned land-grabbing and also, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said, 'a national literature of self-criticism.'

I lament for the innocent of Israel and Palestine. I don't understand how the national boundaries can be finalised without concessions. I do understand why a first reaction is to bang the heads of the enemy against the rocks. Trouble is, we've been having nothing but first reaction for two and a half thousand years. And the children get their heads smashed in.

No comments: