Expanding Empathy: A Reflection on Peacemaking Upon Listening to Veterans

The United States has one of the most diverse militaries in the world. Muslims, Hindus, Jews, atheists, Protestants and Catholics, white black and brown, come together to serve this country.

Those probably weren’t the exact words, but the beautiful veteran at the podium – a Hindu, Indian-American woman speaking in the basement of a mosque at an interfaith vigil – said something to their effect. There was applause, but I sat still, respectful but quiet, feeling disturbed. We had gathered that evening to pray and work for peace, to the mourn senseless violence and bigotry of terrorism, and to honor and celebrate the power of love to transform hate. And the lady standing before us was bursting with compassion. But the military in which she served is a force of death and destruction, the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.

I could feel the comradery in the room as we listened to each of the speakers, including veterans of our armed forces, passionately exhort unity through diversity, extolling the bonds of empathy, common need and shared hope that connect all humanity. A communal resolve pulsated through the atmosphere, binding us in a commitment to be our kindest selves and find and bring out the good in others.

In the midst of that peace-making event, it was disheartening but not particularly surprising to see that the connection between the terror we decried and the terror our military wages was not publicly acknowledged. The United States military, the largest and most powerful in the world, with over 800 bases scattered across over 70 countries, is glorified in our society. From sporting events to schools, in concerts and classrooms, on holidays and ordinary days, we hear of the bravery and sacrifice of our soldiers. Over half of our discretionary spending goes to our military, and we are taught that it is the brave men and women of our armed forces who protect our freedoms and make the world secure. Good, courageous people join the military to, indeed, serve and protect. And yet that service and protection is based on the sacrificial lie that has deceived humanity from the beginning of time – that some must die so others may live.

It doesn’t surprise me that people coming together to denounce hate and violence would still express faith in our armed forces to be a force for good in the world. Our culture is saturated with military reverence. But although there are many good soldiers who embody courage, stamina, and heart, there is no good war. And it is important to recognize that, despite the pretenses used to justify each new conflict, from stopping an “existential threat” to bringing democracy and relieving humanitarian crises, wars are not fought for the benefit of the people here or abroad, but for the profit and power of a few. The United States overthrows democracies in favor of dictatorships or regional chaos in order to maintain control over oil and natural gas resources. Our government sells more weapons than any other nation in the world, including the billions of bombs being used by Saudi Arabia to wreak devastation and famine in Yemen. Our military has bombed hospitals, schools, and mosques. It has undercounted civilian casualties and implemented a policy of counting all military-aged males as combatants. And as those rendered jobless, homeless, childless, orphaned, widowed and nearly hopeless take up arms in vengeance or desperation, our military fuels a perpetual cycle of violence.

We cannot separate the violence at home from the violence in which our military participates abroad. It is not only that US military aggression is frequently cited as the reason behind terror attacks. It is not just that militarization abroad spills over at home in the form of militarized police, and training and equipment used to kill abroad is increasingly being used to treat low-income and minority neighborhoods like military occupations. It is not even simply that the money ostensibly spent to destroy threats abroad actually creates threats while destroying livelihoods abroad and draining funds from all that could be used to make life safer, more peaceful and more just at home. It is all of these reasons, but more still.

We cannot separate the violence at home from the violence abroad because they stem from the same spirit of dehumanization and the same limit of empathy. Not a lack of empathy, mind you, but a limit. Empathy that extends only to the loved ones we know, or only to our country, or only to our faith community, might not allow us to hear the stories of those who fear or have been hurt by us. Limited empathy for our loved ones at others’ expense can cause us to take up arms against others whom we perceive as threatening (usually without realizing that it’s because they perceive us as threatening, too). A deeper, broader empathy, however, can help us remember that those we take up arms against are human beings with the same desire to live securely, earn a living with dignity, and raise families in peace. That deeper empathy can convert our sense of identity and all the energy we put into cultivating and maintaining it from over and against to with and for.

That is exactly the kind of deeper empathy that an interfaith vigil is meant to cultivate. And the vigil I attended did just that. It drew people of different faiths, ethnicities, ages and political ideologies together not only to pray to the one God we know in different ways, but to meet and learn from each other, and commit ourselves as one community dedicated to peace. I still believe that nurturing this kind of empathy, building friendships across boundaries, can save the world.

In fact, although I felt frustrated by the lack of connection made between violence suffered at home and violence perpetrated abroad, in the time since the vigil I feel my empathy growing for soldiers and veterans. Both of the veterans who spoke at the vigil expressed their frustration with the experience of being marginalized, one as an Indian-American woman, and the other as an African-American man. They were at the vigil because they wanted to dedicate themselves to bringing people together rather than dividing them. Reflecting on their words and the love they exuded, I realize that I too often fall into the trap of “othering.” As much as I try not to, my revulsion toward militarism can sometimes cloud my vision of the humanity of our soldiers. It was good for me to see the kindness in the faces of the veterans who spoke.

After all, it wasn’t the fact that veterans were speaking at a peace vigil that disturbed me so much as our entire culture’s faith in violence. Our veterans are on the front lines of that faith. They aren’t the only ones who believe in justified violence, or violence for the greater good. They just put their bodies, along with their hearts and minds, where their faith is. And there is honor in that.

Faith in violence is one of the most human things in the world. Even devoted pacifists get caught up in cycles of violence – from yelling to venting frustrations to failing to see the humanity in an adversary. And the United States, in particular, doesn’t put nearly as much energy into cultivating peacemaking and nurturing empathy as it does into preparing for, justifying, and glorifying war. But it should. Our culture should nurture the courage, passion, and discipline soldiers cultivate, but should do so in the form of reconciliation and reparation for peoples and a planet dying from war.

Interfaith vigils are a start. So is educating ourselves and our children in the truth about our violence and the humanity of those who are different, even those we consider the enemy. We should learn and train ourselves in peaceful conflict resolution here at home and know that what works for humans here might work for humans elsewhere, because we share the common thread of humanity. But we should also learn the context of the lives of those who suffer in our wars. And we should honor peacemakers as we honor soldiers, finding inspiration in organizations like the Afghan Peace Volunteers and the Preemptive Love Coalition. War has been called a force that gives us meaning, but when we find our meaning not in waging death but in coming together to nourish life, we will live not according to the lie of violence but the truth of our interconnection. We will live into our destinies as image-bearers of Love.

In ways small and large, we can guide our nation in a transformation from faith in violence to faith in peace. And then we can follow the lead of our soldiers and veterans and put our bodies, hearts, and minds where our faith is, beating our swords into plowshares and sewing love throughout the world.

Image: Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares, a sculpture by Evgeniy Vuchetich, available on Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

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