A small group of us have been meeting over the last few weeks to discuss Karen Armstrong’s book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. We had previously discussed her book The Case for God and subsequently Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion. Can you detect a theme here? To give you a clue, we have been meeting on a weekday evening in Birse and Feughside Church hall, though we participants have a wide range of religious faiths and none, and not all are members of this church. Oh yes, it’s not all fun and riotous living here on Deeside.
These are books that do not necessarily make you feel comfortable. But then religion is not always a comfortable topic, whether or not you are religious yourself. In the last few days we have seen more violence in the Middle East. Over the last year, hundreds of rockets have been fired at Israel from Gaza by Hamas, which Israel regards as a terrorist organisation. In response, the Israeli air force and navy have launched a series of what they are calling surgical strikes on Gaza. In the midst of it all, being killed, wounded and traumatised are Palestinian and Israeli civilians. Richard Dawkins probably regards this situation as just another example of the destructive power of religion and religious belief – and it is true that there are religious fanatics on both sides, who may or may not be truly representative of the religions to which they claim to belong. Karen Armstrong, on the other hand, probably sees here a failure of individuals to live out the compassionate Golden Rule that she claims is at the heart of all religions – i.e. treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. She is very specific about war and warlike actions, and urges us to learn about and understand our enemy: Is there great suffering in your enemy’s history? Remember that in a threatening environment, the human brain becomes permanently organised for aggression: has this happened to your enemy?…..Retaliation is likely only to exacerbate the hatred and violence activated by the threat mechanism. (Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life p171)
Ironically, Richard Dawkins and Karen Armstrong arrive at the same conclusions about ideals of human behaviour, but by very different routes. The difficulty with ideals, of course, is living them out in practice. When you read some of the statements on both sides of the Gaza/Israel conflict it is easy to despair. This from the son of the former Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon: We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima – the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too. Or this from the charter of Hamas: Our struggle against the Jews is very great and very serious and it goes on to call for the total destruction of Israel. Cheerful stuff – on both sides.
This all sounds a long way from Birse and Feughside and discussion by well-meaning people of ideals in books. But peace and reconciliation have to start somewhere, usually by individuals sitting down to talk to other individuals and deciding that their common humanity is more important than any religious, cultural, historical or nationalist baggage they are carrying.
In the Middle East at the moment that still quiet voice of common humanity seems very quiet indeed.