We live in an age of confusion. The new millennium has started with a wild clash between extremist views, some of which claim to represent religion through violence and hatred. At the same time, we live in a society that seems to redefine its morality (and even its language) in the name of progress and enlightenment. Although both religious and post-modern outlooks claim to offer visions of world peace and happiness, we see more bloodshed and anguish in many parts of the world.
Unlike many wars in the past, many of us are not at all clear what the current conflicts are fought about. Is this an era of a "Clash of Civilisations", as Samuel P. Huntington suggested, or does this lofty rhetoric serve as an excuse for the same ancient instincts and basic interests? Either way, it seems that many people on all sides have a deep need for a clearer justification for their actions.
War is an extreme existential condition. People act in strange ways during wartime. We do not expect anyone to jump into danger, unless some higher value overrides the individual instinct of self-preservation. In times of peace, such heroic actions usually reflect our faith in the sanctity of life and in human solidarity. We admire a person who jumps into a stormy sea or a burning house in order to save lives. But in war, we seem to demand the same courage for the opposite purpose - to kill the enemy. It may be seen as an attempt to save the life of a whole society, but history shows that fighters often require "higher ideals" to justify the risk to their individual lives. Soldiers often feel that they fight for Goodness and Truth, while the enemy represents Evil and Falsehood.
In fact, any simple argument about "The Truth" may easily contain the seeds of violence. Our intuitive assumption is that one side in a dispute must be "right", automatically defining the opponent as "wrong". The best that most of us can accept is "to agree to disagree".
Enter post-modernist relativism. Some Westerners have taught themselves to accept a reality that has no objective Truth, only subjective perceptions and narratives. They imply that there are no values that justify aggression or coercion, and demand acceptance of all human perceptions as morally equal.
Even if one agrees with the idea of abolishing morality, it is obviously unrealistic. The very same people who wave the flags of tolerance and relativity have developed extremely charged emotions against President Bush and his partners. One can accept their objection to the war in Iraq, but why did many of them carry huge pictures of Saddam Hussein in their demonstrations? It seems that their own struggle pushed them to abandon any relative emotions. If Bush is the villain, they seem to imply, then Saddam is an angel...
If post-modern intellectuals honestly believe in relativism, can they not accept a situation where both Bush and Saddam are monsters? Or perhaps, they both have a point and try to serve their countries? Moreover, if both presidential candidates are less than ideal, can one decide to vote for a lesser evil, or even avoid casting his vote altogether? Must one demonise one side and glorify the other?
Many people, particularly in Europe, tend to draw such a simplistic picture of the Middle East. Those who support the Palestinian cause deduce that Israelis are all devils. Extreme supporters of Israel draw the same picture with reversed roles: Arab beasts and Israeli cherubs.
It seems that humans need such a Tarzan-like mentality in times of conflict: "Me right - You wrong." So the concept of Truth is often kidnapped by warmongers.
In this sense, the quote from Zechariah above seems particularly strange: "Love Truth and Peace". Is it possible? Can humans who believe in an absolute Truth live peacefully with people who disagree with them?
Jewish scholars have explained that Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden with the knowledge of Truth. Once they have eaten from the fruit of the "tree of knowledge of good and evil", they have descended to the human level as we know it today. While "Truth" represents an absolute, objective concept, "Good" is a relative term. A certain object can be good for eating, but bad for wearing on your head. A certain garment may be good for the winter but too hot for the summer. If I lose a game of chess, I would be unlikely to share the victor's joy.
Being mere humans, we tend to confuse "Good and Bad" with "True or False". Yet, genuine believers can live with the awareness that only God knows the Truth, while humans must grapple with the relative concepts of Good and Evil. This may offer a basis for human existence that demands moral conduct without ever claiming to possess the absolute Truth, which is bound to lead to arrogance and aggression. Thus, Zechariah's message is that the love of Truth must lead to love of Peace, because only the Creator who knows the Truth can give life, and only He may take life away. This understanding should encourage true believers to promote tolerance and pray for peace!
Ehud Tokatly, 10/March/2005
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