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Compassion requires more courage than war

By Katharina Weiss - posted Monday, 14 August 2006

Israeli Defence Force commander General Dan Halutz was asked about his feelings when he was pilot of a plane dropping bombs on people in Gaza in 2002. His reply that he felt “a light bump to the plane … and that’s all” sounds incredible and yet it may be true - how else can any human being bear bombing a family sitting peacefully in their house, or killing innocent people sitting on a bus? To fight wars we have to deny our own and others’ humanity. In fact, compassion takes more courage than war: it means respecting, and acting according to, the basic human rights that form the foundation of our civilisation.

Acknowledging the preciousness of human life is something that all authentic spiritual traditions have in common. Similarly, love, compassion and non-violence are at the heart of religions such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism. And yet, for centuries wars have been fought in the name of God, Allah and “goodness”. However, it’s not in rhetoric that a true spiritual person is revealed, but through their actions and their motivation. The truth is that if government and religious leaders were really interested in supporting “goodness” or “God”, they would seek out means of reconciliation and be willing to compromise narrow short-term gains for world-wide long-term benefits.

Hezbollah captures two Israeli soldiers and more than 400 Lebanese civilians die as a result. Where is the “good” in either of these actions? Even their motivation is highly questionable. The Israeli Government itself doesn’t seem to believe in the efficacy of its response: its own military analysts question whether the bombing is actually having an impact on Hezbollah’s capabilities. How can organisations such as Hezbollah and the US and Israeli Governments (and they are by no means the only ones), still claim to represent, or fight for, God in defence of actions that involve the killing and displacement of hundreds of people, and the destruction of their social infrastructure?


George Bush’s reference to an “axis of evil”, implying his own “goodness” by comparison, and his claim to defend “Christian values”, seems ludicrous in the face of his blocking United Nations and European efforts to promote a ceasefire in Lebanon in order to protect innocent people’s lives. When a government protects the “interests” (access to cheap petrol for example) of its own people by letting civilians in another country die, its claim on “goodness” rings hollow. The division of nations into “good v evil” is not a useful concept in a world of complex societies.

Michael Gawenda wrote recently in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age that the Bush Administration is not interested in “diplomatic compromises” that have never “achieved long-term peace in the region”. Is destroying Beirut really going to achieve long-term peace? A deep transformation would be required for this peace to be possible; a complete and utter change in perception that would take enormous courage - a courage that I can’t envisage George Bush, Ehud Olmert, Hezbollah leaders, or for that matter John Howard, finding in the near future: to see the world through the eyes of compassion, rather than those of fear and economic greed.

The Dalai Lama has said “my religion is kindness”. This may sound a little vague or insipid, but true compassion and non-violence take a lot of courage. People might need to sacrifice some comfort (such as cheap petrol) and see the reality of other people’s humanity and suffering. As Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi says, “it is not power that corrupts, but fear”. For all their supposedly “religious” rhetoric, Hezbollah and George Bush alike lack the courage and dignity of someone like Aung San Suu Kyi or the Dalai Lama, whose fight and whose people have been conveniently forgotten by the world. Is it that war makes for a better spectacle? “Give them bread and circuses”: are we really so easily satisfied?

The path of non-violence may not be as overtly spectacular, but who can forget the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, when masses of people left the DDR, and others peacefully congregated at the internal border checkpoints until the East German Government had no choice but to open the borders? If political and religious leaders would honestly reflect on recent attempts to create peace through war, or terrorism, they would have to acknowledge their failure - as events in Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran are demonstrating.

On the other hand, an attitude of compassion, based on a genuine desire to understand each other’s needs, would encourage dialogue. This could build the foundation for genuine long-term peace - and would certainly have more convincing claims on “goodness”. What is “evil” is the ignorance underlying acts of war and terror, leading to fear and anger, leading to endless cycles of retribution.

Who will have the courage to break this cycle?

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First published in Eureka Street in August 8, 2006.

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About the Author

Katharina Weiss is a yoga teacher based in Melbourne, and is a student of Tibetan Buddhism. She also has a degree in history, and volunteers with Eureka Street as a proof-reader.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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