As I read in today’s news about the Islamic State’s recent threats, the war between Hamas and Israel, the worsening situation between Russia and the Ukraine, and so much else that troubles our world, I can’t help but flash back to other disastrous eras in human history. I am currently reading two books that take a close look at the leaders of great nations as they entered into massive wars. One is a biography of Peter the Great and the other is about Winston Churchill. History tells us a great deal about the life of a nation just as a biography tells us about the childhood of a human being. In both cases, there are forces at work that seem to emerge from dark, murky places few can fully understand.
In Peter’s case, he witnessed a horrendous massacre as a boy which changed his views forever on everything from the Russian army to his faith in God and religion. In Winston’s case, he carried within him a preserved image of his father who many saw as little more than a failure. Two very different men who were to profoundly change the world were effected by forces which they likely did not fully understand.
When I think of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and other leaders who brutalized their generations, I can only think that they rose from a humus which few realized until it was too late. I am not a sociologist or psychologist, but I can be concerned about how humanity handles the hate of our day.
I lived and worked in Chicago as a volunteer teacher right after college, and I soon realized that no matter how sincere my intentions, some people would never see past the color of my skin. I was hated, spat at, called names and threatened, simply because they thought they had a right to hate me. My purpose was misunderstood to say the least. Certain people just could not allow me to explain that I had only come to help kids learn. They wouldn’t have believed me in any case – for what ever reason. I am sure they were profoundly wounded people, but their anger wove a web of hate that blocked out all hope.
Ironically, when I worked for the Peace Corps in the Philippines, I met with the opposite extreme. People there seemed to believe I had almost magical powers simply because I was an American. I was there to help the teachers educate their students, but what I found was a system which, at times, pandered to protocol and though there were hard working, devoted teachers doing heroic jobs, they were hindered by rules which didn’t necessarily meet the needs of the kids. When I suggested reasonable improvements, it was as if I was asking them to walk on water. They believed I had the power to change things which were rightly more in their control. Yet, that image, that belief in their own powerlessness was just as blinding as the hate I encountered in Chicago.
In Los Angeles, I found the same reality but in unique circumstances. I taught kids who came from Mexico and some of them had profoundly disturbing ideas about life and family. Where there was hate, I tried to sew love and patience, but I was up against some pretty steep odds and again, some very wounded souls.
I have come to believe in the power of hate and its ability to spread rapidly. Once seriously hurt a person will strike back and attempt to block all further threats. That is perfectly reasonable. But it also happens to be the recipe for disaster for hate often mutates the victim from innocence to arrogance. Everyone has a right and a duty to protect themselves and those they love from harm. But the danger is – we don’t always realize the effect past wounds have on our souls and we begins to make decisions not to really help – but to strike back – to wound others as we have been wounded. People can talk all they want about philosophy, religion, believes and moral codes, but what is actually happening is often beyond our own understanding. Hate is a force unto itself. It devours and it destroys hope. It blocks out reason. It will not listen and it has no mercy.
Beside praying hard, the best I can do as I face the hate of our day, is not join in. Evil must be stopped. Cruelty must be stemmed. Intolerance and every violation of human rights must be addressed honestly and with clear action. But the most important thing to remember about facing the enemy – is not to become one.