A rapid succession of disturbing world events has made this summer full of stress and worry.
Russia’s invasion of Crimea in the Ukraine began in the summer, followed by the frightening and deadly advance of ISIS into Iraq, the flood of immigrants crossing our borders, the invasion of Gaza by the Israelis, and, more recently, the shooting down of a commercial airliner by Russian separatists. Many of us wince when those dreaded words “breaking news” appear on our TV screens or the Internet.
Yet not all is darkness. Yes, the world is frightening right now, but we have been given light to understand both how we got into and how we can get out of this mess. For me, one of the most important sources of light radiates from the mind of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.
Niebuhr worked and wrote over half a century ago, which may explain why most Americans do not even recognize his name. But his insights are as relevant now as they were when he lived.
If Niebuhr were alive today, he would likely point out a glaring similarity between the Israel-Gaza confrontation, the flood of immigrants pouring across our southern border, and the crisis in the Ukraine.
Both Israel and the United States have placed their hopes in building walls. Israel has built a literal wall to separate the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza from Israel, while the United States has begun to construct a similar wall on our southern border to keep out the poor of Central America and Mexico. Russia and the Ukraine may resort to the same tactic of a physical wall to separate the warring factions.
That these walls have failed and will always fail to solve the problems would not have surprised Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr’s genius was in understanding human nature. He pointed out that the more secure one side becomes, the more insecure the other side feels. Israel wants the Palestinians to be so intimidated by Israel’s military might that the Palestinians will give up.
The United States wants Mexicans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, and other Central Americans to be more intimidated by border patrols and trigger-happy militia members than they do of the oppression and death squads in their home countries.
Niebuhr warned that this thinking is erroneous. The more insecure and intimidated one side becomes, the more that side must act to re-establish a sense of security. The more Israel tries to frighten the Palestinians, the more the Palestinians will be forced to try to frighten Israel in return. The more the United States tries to create its own “iron curtain” along our southern border, the more desperate will be the poor from Central America and Mexico.
With this insight, Niebuhr proposed a solution. He argued that if a nation truly wants to establish peace with an adversary, that nation must do whatever is necessary to alleviate the insecurity felt by the opposing nation. Instead of trying to scare the opponent into submission, Niebuhr recommended that a nation accept a fact — that those living on the other side of the wall want the same things from life that we do: shelter, safety, freedom, food, jobs, education and decent health services.
From Niebuhr’s perspective, the solution to the problems of Israel, the United States, Russia and the Ukraine is staring them in the face.
The gap between the living conditions of Palestinians of Gaza and the living conditions of Israelis on the other side of the wall is huge. In Gaza, there is no clean water. On the other side of the wall in Israel, water feeds golf courses. Israel can continue to spend billions on trying to beat the Palestinians down, or Israel can spend that money to help the Palestinians achieve the same decent human life that Israelis enjoy.
Similarly, the United States can spend billions on walls, drones and border patrols in an attempt to keep the poor of Central America and Mexico out of our country, or we can spend that money assisting those countries in developing stability. As long as Central American death squads and drug lords terrorize the poor, those poor will have no choice but to head north.
As long as children die of disease and malnutrition, poor parents in Central America will have no choice but to flee their countries. As long as corruption and joblessness are realities of those countries, the victims will not accept these conditions as their lot in life. Why should they? We wouldn’t, if we were in their shoes.
The choice seems clear for nations, whether they be the United States, Israel or Russia. We can continue to view the world as “us versus them,” or we can accept that we are one human family. In the first approach, fear will breed more fear. In the second approach, compassion will sow the seeds of more compassion.
The choice is ours.
David Carlson is a professor of philosophy and religion at Franklin College and the author of “Peace Be with You: Monastic Wisdom for a Terror-Filled World” available in bookstores or on Amazon.com. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.