In an incident that has become all too numbingly commonplace in the Middle East, two Arab cousins burst into a synagogue in Jerusalem with guns and knives. They killed four ultra-Orthodox rabbis and a policeman before being gunned down themselves. Vowing to “settle the score with every terrorist,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the demolition of the assailants’ homes in Arab East Jerusalem. The Israeli government had recently resumed this punitive measure against suspected terrorists after abandoning the practice a decade earlier because it was deemed to be ineffective in halting terrorism. I am sure Netanyahu felt enormous pressure to act when citizens of his country were threatened by violence. But given the unrelenting history of conflict over his nation’s entire existence, even he must have known that such acts of retribution yield nothing but more violence.
It is fair to ask whether there are realistic alternatives to the bloody tit-for-tat that has prevailed in that region until now. It has been years since either side has been willing to pay anything more than lip service to a peaceful solution. Both seem intent on sabotaging any prospects for a real settlement. To those who are not direct parties to the dispute, the whole grim spectacle has taken on the character of two scorpions in a bottle.
This may seem like an odd juncture to invoke the Sermon on the Mount, and yet it speaks directly to the agonizingly slow duel-to-the-death now unfolding in the Middle East. "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,'” Jesus told his listeners. “But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” A turn-the-other-cheek approach may seem absurdly naïve under the best of circumstances, never mind when you are dealing with antagonists who resort to suicide bombings or laser-guided missiles to resolve their differnces. Yet the tactics employed by either side to date have utterly failed to achieve any strategic advantage, much less a lasting peace.
Even an eye-for-an-eye approach would be an improvement over the policy currently pursed by the Israeli government, which insists on escalating the violence to “settle the score” after a terrorist provocation. Thus, three Israeli teenagers are kidnapped and murdered, and the government invades Gaza, killing thousands. Demolishing the homes of terrorists inevitably punishes innocent parties who may also happen to be living there, radicalizing family, friends and neighbors. A bad situation is further enflamed, and the most belligerent players on both sides are empowered, while more moderate elements are sidelined.
Jesus’ exhortation not to resist evil is hardly calculated to appeal to those traumatized by repeated terrorist attacks or by Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Jesus might seem to be suggesting that we knuckle under to evil. But did the leaders of the American civil rights movement knuckle under to evil when they endured arrest, beatings, fire bombings and assassination to advance their cause? They deliberately refused to counter violence with violence and seized the moral high ground, eventually prevailing in their struggle.
There is a Sufi teaching that one must not invoke the name of Satan or he will rise from his grave. By branding our opponents as evil we remove any possibility of reaching an accommodation with them, and it also enables us to ignore the evil residing in ourselves. Evil is only energized by our blind resistance to it, and our energies are laid waste in a futile struggle against shadows. Just think of the trillions of dollars spent and the thousands of lives lost in our war against terrorism, which has so far utterly failed to diminish the threat. Much the same can be said of our war against drugs and our war against poverty. Perhaps the time has come to stop fighting wars and to start addressing their underlying causes.