It has been several weeks since the massacre in Christchurch, which left 50 people dead. This deliberate act of astonishing violence was even more egregious as it occurred in a house of worship. In an instant, we were all taken back to Pittsburg and Quebec City where peaceful worshippers in a synagogue and mosque, respectively, were gunned down during their ritual prayers. Tragically, our places of worship are no longer the safe, hospitable spaces they once were.
Perhaps more tragic than the senseless murders themselves is the fact that our modern world seems to be characterized by an ever-increasing divide among its inhabitants. The false promise of the proponents of progressivism seems to be falling on its face. We are not more connected to one another due to our increased capacity to communicate across languages, time zones and borders. Technological advances, as enticing and inviting as they are, have not contributed to greater understanding of "The Other". On the contrary, we are arguably living in one of the most divided worlds history has witnessed. From race and religion to power and politics, people seem to be more polarized than ever before. This has resulted in a revival of a pre-modern concept of clans and tribes; us and them, the good and the bad, the righteous and evildoers, etc. Everyone who is not with us is against us. Those who do not see things my way must somehow be corrected at best – or more tragically, intimidated and eliminated.
This type of binary, simplistic and mechanistic view of reality is what is termed the 'creation of enemy images' in the language of Nonviolent Communication as per the understanding of its founder, the late Marshall B. Rosenberg. The enemy is someone different than me, and his difference alone renders him an enemy. His very existence is a threat to mine and therefore it is justifiable to seek him out and destroy him. Whether it is white supremacy, Islamist-jihadism, anti-Semitism or any other ideology predicated on violently defeating its perceived opponents, the underlying principle is the same: For us to survive and thrive, "The Other" (Jew, Muslim, Atheist, Black, homosexual etc.) must be proactively sought out for the purpose of annihilation.
While such enemy images are abound in our countries, neighborhoods, schools and communities, there is also reason to celebrate. Immediately after the shootings in New Zealand, nearly every world faith-leader and political figure spoke out against the horrific actions of the perpetrator. We witnessed innumerable citizens of the world come together in support and care for the Muslims in their societies and communities. They offered vigils, private and public prayer services, sent flowers to every mosque and most touchingly, embraced the Muslims themselves with genuine empathy, compassion and humanity. One would be hard-pressed to find any but the most disturbed of our human brethren who did not immediately condemn the attack. Such universal condemnation is a beginning but it cannot be the end.
What do we do now? A tragedy has already befallen the otherwise peaceful population of Christchurch and the burial and mourning of loved ones is well underway. The oft-repeated question I am asked as a Counsellor and Trainer in Nonviolent Communication is how do we heal from this? How can we be proactive in ensuring that such tragedies never happen again? While such questions and concerns are a natural response to calamities, it may be worth our collective emotional and spiritual investment to ask ourselves some preliminary questions before tackling the seemingly daunting task of ensuring that "this never happens again".
How do we interact with our neighbors? Do we ever inconvenience ourselves to inquire about them or even visit them? Do we set out to intentionally reach out to those whom we perceive as "The Other" – those who might not speak our language; who worship differently; who look different than us; who hail from a culture foreign to our own? Upon reflection, I find myself answering these questions in the negative and whether I realize it or not, I have therefore contributed to a more divided society. Like most of us, I long for a more connected society, country, indeed world. Such connection need not require the expertise of seasoned policy-makers in corporate and government offices. It demands that you and I start with ourselves. The creation of enemy images can indeed be undone but it starts with an inward journey; a journey that begins with an intention to connect with another human being, for no other reason but that – to connect – irrespective of his skin-color, race, religion or political affiliation. With such a collective intention, there is reason and space for hope – hope in internally shifting from enemy to ally, "other" to brother -from disdain to dignity.
In the words of the ancient Chinese Muslim Saint, Wang Tai-yu:
" The ancients, who wished to clarify their virtue under heaven, would first govern their countries. Those who wished to govern their countries would first regulate their families. Those who wished to regulate their families would first cultivate their own personal lives. Those who wished to cultivate their personal lives would first make their hearts true. Those who wished to make their hearts true would first make their intentions sincere…there is never a case when the root is in disorder and yet the branches are in order."