After Christchurch attacks, thoughts on violence, peace and justice

The terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch that left 50 dead highlights the despicable cycle of terror and violence that has rocked the world.

Mar 21, 2019

By Anil Netto
The terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch that left 50 dead highlights the despicable cycle of terror and violence that has rocked the world.

This time it raised even more eyebrows for two reasons: it took place in New Zealand, which seemed like peaceful oasis in a world wracked by violence, and the prime suspect appeared to be steeped in white supremacist ideology.

Unfortunately, this supremacist ideology also appears steeped in distorted Christian symbols and religious conflicts and thrives on Islamophobia.

The world we live in may seem relatively peaceful but the cycle of violence is never far away, as the massacre in Christchurch demonstrates.

Perhaps this was not much different from the world where Jesus lived, which was then a distant outpost of the Roman Empire.

The Empire was outwardly ‘peaceful’ but it was an uneasy peace most of the time. During the Passover feast for instance, the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, would lead a security detail from his base in Caesarea to enter Jerusalem with much pomp and regalia (in contrast to Jesus’ humble entry on a donkey). It was a show of force to remind pilgrims who the real “boss” was.

The Romans were always a bit uneasy when mass crowds converged on the Temple to celebrate Passover, a feast commemorating the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. It wouldn’t take a genius for the pilgrims to draw a parallel to their past slavery in Egypt to their present occupation and subjugation of their land by the Romans in collaboration with the local elites and religious leaders.

So the Romans security, the Temple guard and the priestly class kept a watchful eye on the proceedings at the festival to celebrate liberation that was taking place in the Temple. They would have reacted with nervousness and alarm when Jesus upset the moneychangers’ tables and chased those profiteering from the pilgrims out of the Temple.

Even before that incident the area was already in ferment with periodic uprisings against Roman rule, led by false messiahs. Apart from them, the Zealots — the “fundamentalists” of those days — were also active in seeking independence from Roman rule.

The more extremist splinter group of the Zealots were known as the Sicarii, which means assassin. The term Sicarri comes from the Latin word for dagger — sica; so Sicarri would be a dagger-wielder. They were the terrorists of the era, concealing their small daggers in their cloak, only to suddenly spring attacks on the Romans and their local sympathisers. They also carried out raids and massacres around the land.

The Romans, on the other hand, prided themselves in bringing about peace. But that peace was a superficial peace — a forced peace brought about by subjugating foreign lands through military power — in other words, peace through military victory. Think of the situation in Judea, which was ruled by local Roman puppet kings, but in reality under the real regional Roman authority in Syria.

The people in Jesus’ time endured much suffering under the relatively ‘peaceful’ Roman rule – abuse and torture by soldiers, taxes to fund vanity projects, crucifixion of rebels. The Roman Emperor even considered himself some kind of deified ruler, a son of god. So in some ways, the violence of Roman rule and that of the Sicarri were two sides of the same coin.

Jesus kept a distance from both sides and decried violence, even if it was to save himself. When Peter pulled out his sword to try and defend Jesus from arrest and imminent death, the apostle felt the scathing words of Jesus who commanded him to put his sword back into its sheath.

The peace that Jesus heralded could not have been more different then the peace of the Romans (Pax Romana), which was based on victory and the subjugation of entire peoples. Jesus’ peace was based on compassionate and people-focused distributive justice, based on community solidarity.

That peace was symbolised by Jesus’ ‘miraculous’ sharing of fish and loaves among a multitude so that no one went home hungry. Similar Jesus’ entire Passion for peace and justice in our world was symbolised by the breaking of bread at the Last Supper, in a world broken and torn by violence. He experienced and endured brunt of that violence on through his own broken body in the authorities’ ultimately vain attempt to snuff out the challenge to their own interpretation of ‘peace’.

In our world today, violence can take many forms — not just terrorist attacks on innocent people, but the violence inflicted on the very earth itself. Think of the chemical contamination of the river in Johor which has wreaked havoc and much suffering among the innocent people and the creatures of the rivers and surrounding habitat. Perhaps this lax attitude towards the environment comes from a certain mindset which places quick and easy Profits above People and the Planet.

Jesus told us that we should be like little children in understanding the simplicity of the Gospel command to love our neighbour. Perhaps it is altogether fitting that it was the youths which showed and spoke up in a prophetic voice, spilling out onto the streets in the Youths Strike for Climate on March 15. Thousands of youths from all over the world took part in these gatherings.

In Malaysia, social awareness among the youths is still low, given the decades of keeping them blinkered away from the critical issues of the day. But in Penang, dozens of youth turned up outside USM to join in solidarity with the global event, thus ensuring that Malaysia was represented. Women too marched a week earlier on March 8 protesting against violence towards the vulnerable and marginalised.

We may feel helpless after the spate of massacres around the world. But we can and should also resolve to redouble our efforts to be bridge-builders walking in the way of peace and justice, while rejecting violence in all its many forms.

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