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Power: Building or tearing down?

Opinion & Analysis
guest column:Fr Oskar Wermter SJ When I want to build a company, or get together a community, or found a family, what do I seek — confrontation or co-operation? Do I build or tear down? Very often we want to build by tearing down; we want to save life, by destroying it.

guest column:Fr Oskar Wermter SJ

When I want to build a company, or get together a community, or found a family, what do I seek — confrontation or co-operation? Do I build or tear down? Very often we want to build by tearing down; we want to save life, by destroying it.

That is what “redemptive violence” does. We want to liberate the country by turning its citizens into slaves. We want to build a new country by bombing it to smithereens. We dream of glory, creating a new earth and a model society, but what we get is horror and blood and gore. The French sang the praises of liberty, fraternity and equality, and invented the guillotine to kill faster.

This seems to be a frightening scenario, dark and without hope, depressing and terrifying. But this time before Christmas is in fact a time of hope. We have not been abandoned. We are not lost. As the whole world is in the grip of the pandemic COVID-19, loving kindness is still at work. Compassion is active in the untiring efforts of doctors and nurses. Scientists have not given up the struggle. They fight on, even at the risk of endangering their own lives. Humanity has not been defeated.

But medical people must be careful. The COVID-19 pandemic has given them immense power. They can isolate people whether actually sick or only suspected to be affected and cut them off from all human intercourse.

Never give a human being total power over other human beings.

Doctors must use their medical authority discretely. Abuse of this authority is possible.

The other day I was talking to a friend who was extremely ill, in fact he had cancer and died four days later. He asked a profound question. “Why is there anything at all in existence, rather than nothing?

Why did the creator call the world into being, and everything in it, we, the human race, included?”

He gave the answer himself. “There is only one explanation,” he said, “He loved the world and humanity into being.” A prophetic message has put us on the right track by saying, “God is Love”. That is why he is bothered with us. That is why we are not infinitely lonely like children who do not know where they come from.

The energy that holds the world together and every social entity within it is Love: benevolence, forgiveness, reconciliation, respect and reverence for life.

There were families in some societies which were started by force, even violence. They were not started by a man falling in love with a woman, courting her, getting her free consent and finally visiting her parents and getting their agreement. In some societies there was a shortage of women, and men kidnapped the few available. Even today girls are captured like trophies of war, are treated as merchandise in human trafficking, are traded like on a slave market and sold to the highest bidder or are simply forced into a (child) marriage.

Whenever we want to start good human relationships in marriage and family, in our village or neighbourhood, we start by making friends, showing respect and love.

A new community or nation is built on mutual acceptance and tolerance. Xenophobia is no way of enhancing our nation or society. Racial prejudice cuts the links between people which are vital for a new nation or country.

Contempt for people who are different is no way for building social cohesion and togetherness. Class warfare breeds hatred; it does not create a more united, stronger, and more viable people or nation.

Evil never produces something good. The revolutionary leaders of Zimbabwe were aware of this, at least some of them. Our defeated former masters also understood this – again, at least those who were sufficiently enlightened to understand.

They offered their hands for making peace. This still has to happen in Matabeleland with the surviving victims of “Gukurahundi.”

Little boys threaten each other, “I will beat you”. It is to be hoped that they will change their minds before they grow into big and powerful men, so that they no longer want to enforce their will by imposing it on others, especially women, with threats of violence. The little boy who hits his sister may turn into a wife-beater when he is grown up.

In a conversation we want to share knowledge, insights, memories, our own personal thoughts, in fact we want to share ourselves and what we feel. We want to clarify our thinking by comparing our thoughts with those of friends, colleagues and companions.

We have to speak the same language and must have common feelings. I must be able to read what is in the heart of my partner-in-dialogue, and feel the way he/she feels. What we have in common will build a bridge between us. Friendship does the same, as well as benevolence and mutual respect.

A conversation is likely to succeed on the basis of compassion. This means “to endure something with another person, to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, to feel her pain as if it was our own, and to enter generously into her point of view”. It is likely to fail, if there is distrust, suspicion, hostility and antagonism between us.

Is our conversation a struggle and contest to determine who is superior and wins the competition, or is it an endeavour to establish the truth in a common effort? With what kind of mind do we enter the conversation? We must make up our minds “whether we want to win the argument or seek the truth”?

This common basis for a conversation or, indeed any relationship, is best expressed in the ancient saying: “Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you”. It became known in different religions and philosophies as the “Golden rule”. Jesus gave it a positive meaning: “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).

Verbal violence is the first step towards bloody violence. “Shouting my partner down”, ridiculing, mocking, insulting him or her, is counterproductive.

It breaks the relationship and it is the opposite of what was intended; instead of building a bridge, it brings about antagonism and enmity: the bridge collapses.

It paves the way for mutual destruction. Just as it silences the partner, it kills him as an enemy soldier. Leaders who seek followers will only make enemies if they show contempt for potential allies and companions in the struggle.

The forces of “law and order” will not be able to make the law respected, instil a sense of loyalty to the State, or create order if their manner is aggressive and chaotic.

“Forces” without self-control will not be able to “control” a country. Rulers, who have no love for the people, no respect for humanity, will not be able to build a society based on solidarity and compassion.