“I am looking for peace. I am looking for mercy. I am looking for evidence of compassion. any evidence of life. i am looking for life.” (Suheir Hammad, “First Writing Since”)
Just weeks after 9/11, with emotional wounds, confusion, and hurt still fresh in the psyche of every American, spoken-word artist Suheir Hammad delivered one of the most emotionally raw and powerful performances I’ve ever seen. Her delivery of the poem “First Writing Since” to a crowd of tearful New Yorkers can be viewed here (language warning; it’s raw).
Hammad’s perspective in this particular matter was quite unique. She grew up in Brooklyn, and lives there to this day. The pain felt as a New Yorker was all too real for her. But perhaps more so, Hammad’s existence as a Palestinian, born in Jordan to refugee parents escaping the violence of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, brought to light the very real suffering that would soon be enacted through America’s “War on Terror”. Her very birth and cultural heritage has been one defined by war, violence, and displacement. From this perspective, with war between American forces and Al-Qaeda on the horizon, she illuminated the chilling reality:
I know for sure who will pay.
In the world, it will be women, mostly colored and poor. women will have to bury children, and support themselves through grief.
As we flash forward to the current conflict between Israel and Palestine, are things any different? Has this not, in fact, been the case throughout the entire history of war and violent conflict—that women and children have had the worst of it?—caught in the middle of violence they neither caused nor perpetuated?—caught in the middle of violence that, for the most part, has been perpetuated by policies and ideologies created by men?
While men in suits busy themselves defending or decrying what Israel is doing right now, report after report delivers the deeply terrible news that yet more women and children have died in Gaza. Women, as Suheir Hammad foretold, are burying their own children—or, as some stories have indicated, are placing the bodies of their children in ice cream freezers, while awaiting the opportunity to bury them—and are being left to support themselves through the grief of it. They are left, in fact, asking United Nations officials, Where can I go to be safe? And as yet another school (a supposed “safe haven”) in Palestine has been bombed, UN officials can only reply: We don’t know.
But the women and children of Gaza are not, unfortunately, alone in their suffering, nor invincible from the threat of violence.
We should also remember the women of Israel who live under the threat of indiscriminate rockets being fired by the militants from Hamas. That their country’s defense system is superior to Palestine’s, and has prevented a number of deaths, should not by any means excuse them from our concern for the vulnerable. To live under the fear of the threat of violence is only separated from actually experiencing violence by small degrees.
Let’s be clear at this point that this is not about choosing sides between Israel and Palestine, or even between Christians, Jews, or Muslims. Yet there is a lot at stake for us if we claim to be followers of the Christ who told us to concern ourselves with widows and orphans and those in this world who are most vulnerable. What’s at stake for us now is nothing less than our spiritual health.
I would go so far as to say that to be pro-war is to be anti-woman. To be pro-war is to invite and re-invite the same circumstances that led Jesus to mourn, “How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers!” To not speak out against war is to stand by while women and children inevitably receive the worst of what war has to offer.
Furthermore, if in fact we are not crying out and weeping within our souls for the lives being lost in this senseless violence, what does that say about our attitudes towards women? That they are necessarily part of the collateral damage in someone else’s ideological war? That it can’t be helped? That it’s their fault some war-crazed men have attempted in some cases to use them as human shields? That it’s their fault for seeking refuge in a school they were told would be safe?—for being in the “right” place at the wrong time?
No, we must speak out against this current war in Gaza, because of the fact it is a war. And we must speak out against war everywhere, for the culture of war and militant mindsets affect women everywhere.
In Nigeria, it has been over 3 months since a militant group abducted a school full of girls and began forcing them to marry. And we are still left with nothing at this point but the plea to #bringbackourgirls.
In America, women have been given more positions and higher rankings within the military, only to have to correspondingly fight a culture of rape and sexual assault that has been described as “epidemic”.
A United Nations report on the current crisis in Iraq, where the militant ISIS has been chasing people out of cities, sadly declares that “Predictably, those most vulnerable in peace-time – women, children, minorities and the disabled – have been ‘disproportionately’ affected by the outbreaks of violence.”
War preys on the vulnerable. And the deathly effects on women are predictable. It is in the very DNA of war and violence. We must remember that the next time we are tempted to justify a country’s or a group’s violent actions—even if it is a military action aimed against an “evil” group of “them”. Oh, evil does exist in this world, and it often uses force to get its way. But how we respond to evil says as much about “us” as it does “them”.
Perhaps we might rather denounce retributive violence and search for life-giving, life-allowing avenues for peace—despite how difficult and challenging it will be; despite how impossibly creative we will have to get in order to make peace happen; despite the breadth to which our arms must open up. Anything but violence that begets more violence.