cathy-community-fullcathy-headshotBy Cathy Hird

Last week, in the wake of inhuman violence, it was hard to be hopeful, hard to believe in the possibility of wholeness for our world community. While the attacks in Paris held the top of the news, people also experienced horrific violence in Yemen and Nigeria. Those near these attacks are grieving, in shock. For those not directly in the line of fire, this violence that targets civilians attacks our hope, our sense of personal security, our sympathetic understanding of others.

These were actions taken by people who identify as Muslim. Islam has been tarnished again. Other Muslims are speaking up this week, condemning the violence and articulating their understanding of the prophet Mohammed and the teachings of their religion.This conversation needs to happen within Islam, but those who are not Muslim can listen in. I encourage you to take a look. One article I appreciated was written by Omid Safi, director of Islamic Studies at Duke University. His piece is Nine Points to ponder on the Paris shooting and Charlie Hebdo.

All of us are left to deal with the feelings these attacks sparked, feelings of vulnerability, isolation, fear and confusion. Confusion may be the hardest. We cannot comprehend the emotion of the victims, the trauma of those who survived, and we cannot get our heads around the thinking of the perpetrators. Confusion breeds anxiety. Anxiety makes us defensive.

The pain, the acts of hatred and disdain can spark a desire for punishment and retribution. There is a desire to prevent such attacks, but because we cannot comprehend them, we cannot imagine what would need to change to stop this kind of attack. Retribution may be the only response we look for.

Sometimes it seems as if another person's violent actions take over our minds and hearts. It is important to recognize that the emotions the attacks trigger are ours. We can deal with our emotions. We can ensure that we do not become as angry, as full of hate, as prone to a violent response even if our violence would be a punishment endorsed by the state and international order.

Last week, I finally started reading Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes. Early in the story when the young girl is captured and struggling to cope with the way her humanity is stripped from her, she says: "To gaze into another person's face is to do two things: to recognize their humanity, and to assert your own." (p 29) At that moment, as she discovers that some people do not care if she lives or dies, she asserts the African idea of ubuntu, the sense that we are human together. For me this picture of looking into someone else's face, asserting their humanity and my own, calling on the best from us both, helps me to see how I want to be in the world even in the midst of violence.

The girl's words reminded me of a story Nelson Mandela tells in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. At the moment he and others are brought to Robben Island, the guards use whips to try to get them to run. The guards yell at them as though they were cattle. Mandela tells his companions that they will walk like men. In prison, he will insist that his captors treat him as human even as he treats them as human. This was part of the process that enabled him to be a transformative force in his land.

How do we keep acts of terror from triggering hatred in us? When we are face to face, looking eye to eye, we cannot act with the same violence, fear and loathing. Yes, nations need to be astute about security. Yes, individuals on the rampage must be stopped. But treating a whole religion as inhuman will not lead us forward. Looking at each other as part of the same human community may.

We in Owen Sound do not get to look the leaders of Boko Haram in the face. We do not have that much power or responsibility. We are responsible for the prejudices alive in our community. We are responsible for the attitudes that are nurtured in our society because these affect the actions our government is free to take. And each of us is responsible for the emotions we feed in ourselves. Looking into the face of those we meet, acknowledging their humanity and calling them to acknowledge ours is a first step, a basic step in finding a peaceful way forward.

Cathy Hird is a farmer, minister and writer living near Walters Falls.