We live in a world where nearly everything is programmed to survive by killing one other. Imported plants take over native species, big fish eat little fish, and big animals prey on smaller ones. Ant colonies war with each other; primates do the same. Within our bodies, white blood cells gobble up intruders; in the heavens, black holes gobble up stars.
Eat and be eaten, kill or be killed.
So, we are doing the same. Whether it is dissenting political parties or tribal warfare, conflict is part of human history wherever our species lived and still exists today in remote places in the world. We should be surprised when there is peace and good will for a few years, not when there is war and ill will.
We are territorial animals. We want each other’s land or oil wells or to force others to believe in our God or our political system—how different is it except for scale and technology from wanting each other’s goats or women or totems?
So even when it is not one nation against another, it is one belief system against another. And that, perhaps, is the most destructive of all. When we raid a neighboring village (or nation) to take their resources, we are satisfied with our loot, but often the prize we want is to convert others to our belief system.
We become so entrenched in the fight that we justify the violence as divinely ordained (or moral and necessary to the great cause or the revolution). So, where does that line of reasoning take us?
The suicide bombers of the World Trade Center are sitting at the right hand of God (for they did this in the name of Allah, killing infidels), or so they were promised and believed. Who else is sitting there?
The Christians who led the Crusades (also to kill infidels), or the ones who instigated the Inquisition to kill Jews, or the ones who killed Native Americans in the New World in the name of Christ, are they all sitting with God? What God would be pleased that people kill in his name—Allah or Jesus?
Will the Catholics go to heaven, but not the Baptists? Or, will the Baptists, but not the Mormons? Does a Muslim have the answer or a Jehovah’s Witness or an Inuit? Did God speak to Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, and Joseph Smith?
Even within the same religion there is dissent: Orthodox versus Reform Jews and Christians fighting with each other. So, what is it? Will half of Ireland go to heaven and the other half be denied access? Do we know which: the Catholics or the Protestants? Will the Sunnis or the Shiites?
Is it a clash of religion or a clash of culture? Is it the “have nots” against the “haves,” the bearded ones against the shaven, or the covered heads against the bare ones? Is it dark skin against light?
The survival of our species in the New Millennium will depend, not on ancient conflicts, but on new ways of dealing with one other in spite of different gods and different mores. We must invent ways to assuage the immense anger ravaging the earth today in order to keep our species living on this small planet just a bit longer.
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
—Dwight D. Eisenhower, US general and 34th President (1890–1969)
Perhaps the only way we can counteract our evolutionary propensity is by education. Starting in kindergarten, through high school and college, offer classes not only about understanding diversity but also embracing the ones different from us. We tend to be more comfortable with people similar to ourselves, but our job as teachers, parents, mentors, and leaders is to help people get out of their comfort zones, explore and hold out a hand to those so different from us.
The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, philosopher (1844–1900)
Yet tolerance is not valued by everyone, some see it as a vice, a lack of moral integrity. Maybe the real conflict isn’t between extremists groups, but between the philosophies of absolutism and relativism.
If we are programmed to fight, is there a way to deprogram ourselves, to accept each other as different but still part of the same human family? Is there a way for us to just love one another, not only in spite of, but because of…?