"How are we ever going to stop this?" the woman sitting next to me in an airport boarding area wondered aloud as the CNN newscaster droned on over shots of carnage in Ramallah.
For weeks, we've been surrounded by images of the violence in the Middle East. Small Arab children die on the screens in our living rooms. The bodies of young Jewish soldiers drop from second-story windows. Old stone buildings explode into piles of dust right before our eyes. We watch, fascinated, not because scenes of televised violence are rare. After all, we have been yawning over Chechnya and Yugoslavia and Colombia for months now.
But this violence in the Middle East is different, singular in its effects on us as Christians. This violence, we know down deep, has something to do with us on a personal level. This violence is, somehow, our violence as well as theirs.
We ourselves--as Western Catholics--bear some of the responsibility for fostering it. We are the people who grew up in a culture that had long demeaned Jews and feared Arabs. We are the people whose church taught us, before the Second Vatican Council, that the Jews had been "perfidious" in rejecting Jesus as Messiah. This attitude of religious hostility encouraged, or at least enabled us to ignore, the pogroms and persecutions and holocausts that were launched against Jews over the centuries--and against which many Jews are now reacting with all their might in their determination to secure their position in Israel.
We are the people who once rejoiced in the triumph of our church over the "infidels" whom the Crusaders evicted from the Holy Land in order to save Christendom--as if it were not their Holy Land, too. This was a violence that denied to Muslims their own Abrahamic inheritance in the Mideast, which they are now so determined not to lose.
The entire Western Christian tradition that we have inherited has, in fact, failed by and large to teach, on the one hand, that Jesus was a pious Jew, and on the other, that Muhammad honored both Judaism and Christianity. Eventually, religious acid corroded all possibility for religious tolerance and made political oppression easy.
We taught half-truths about both Muslims and Jews and, worse, ignored the rest of their history, religion, and culture. Clearly, the present violence in the Middle East has a religious dimension for us as well as for Jews and Muslims. We, too, have used God to justify our prejudices and our very human claims.
The religious and political hostility that have turned Jews and Muslims into deadly enemies in the Mideast is, then, just as much a product of our own hearts as it is of theirs. We, too, have sinned against human community and so made inhumanity the order of the day. The social climate of a country begins in the climate of the individual heart, in the efforts of individuals to reach out to those they regard as "the other," to hear them, to respect their needs.
So, what can possibly heal the long-festering wounds that underlie the appalling spectacles--in the Holy Land, of course, but in other parts of the globe as well?
I have discovered some people who may know the answer. They are trying to stop acts of personal violence by turning them into acts of personal peacemaking. They are showing the rest of us how to do it, too. What's more, they are doing it right here, in our own houses and our own hearts. In Cincinnati, Ohio, a group of Catholic religious, in conjunction with the Saint Anthony Messenger Press, are facing down the effects of thousands of years of prejudice by setting out to collect "A 1,000 Years of Peace"--hour by hour--for a total of 8,766,000 hours of peace and justice work. This program, geared to the new millennium we are entering, is not officially tied to Mideast violence, but it tries to address the sources of violence in our daily interactions with others. By focusing on peace and justice in our own hearts and attitudes, the project makes clear we can gradually change the whole world for the better, just as the destructive attitudes of the past have made it worse.
The program is deceptively simple. People who want to be part of making a just and peaceful world simply pledge a given number of hours to do something about the climate of violence in their own lives. The pledges, submitted to the "1,000 Years of Peace" website at www.pledgepeace.org, are poignant and unpretentious. They include such simple actions as complimenting at least one person a day for an entire year, curbing aggressive driving, speaking out or engaging in peaceful protests against injustice, making the Way of the Cross six days a week to do penance for Mideast unrest, offering one's morning Mass for peace, and, as one small child pledged, sharing crayons--all things designed to enable all of us to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. They can change our attitudes, turn us all into peacemakers, help to build the sense of community that can end the suffering in even the most violence-torn parts of the world.
Some 537,000 hours of peacemaking have already been pledged. Now they're waiting for you and me. This time we Christians can plant the seeds of peace inside our own hearts, just as we long ago nurtured the seeds of Jewish-Muslim hostility inside our own hearts. The answer to that woman's question, "What can we ever do to stop this?" may be easier than we realize, even in the war-wracked West Bank.