I grew up during the Cold War. Growing up in those years meant learning implicitly to fear and hate Russians (because at the time, I and probably most others didn't really understand that the Soviet Union consisted of multiple ethnic groups, not only Russians). We viewed them as the great red menace that threatened our very way of life. We certainly did not think of them as real people who lived day by day and who had hopes, dreams, worries and fears that in many ways were not that different from our own. We couldn't be allowed to think of them in this way, because if we did, we might begin to see them as human. Once we recognized their humanity, we might dare to question the morality of threatening them with annihilation just so that we could feel more secure.
Even before the end of the Cold War I had my first opportunity to travel behind “the Iron Curtain,” the physical and philosophical barrier that divided Europe for almost two generations. Behind the curtain I met real people who got up, went to work or school, ate their food, spent time with their family and other daily activities much as I did, even if the specifics looked quite different and the language they spoke seemed quite strange. Some years later, after the Berlin Wall came down and Europe radically reoriented itself, I had the opportunity to live in Russia and become friends with not only Russians but people from other ex-Soviet ethnic groups. Sometimes it struck me as quite strange, meeting people whom not so many years earlier I could have easily found myself at war with. At the same time I recognized once again the commonality of our humanity. Yes, we had differences, but ultimately we shared very significant similarities. Now that I have friends among Russians and other groups, I cannot simply see them as an anonymous, faceless “other,” an enemy to fear and defend against. I could not easily go to war against them, because I would know that on the other side of that battle front were people much like me, people who might know friends of mine, or who might even be friends of mine.
Some still fear the Russians, but for the most part Americans have shifted their fear to other people groups. The attacks of September 11 focused us on a new enemy. And just as we did in the Cold War and prior to that in other wars, we have labeled another group that is different from us as the enemy. We promote fear and even hatred of these people because we feel threatened. Certainly there are some who do threaten our country and our way of life. But rather than seeing them as the exception, we choose to identify all who are like them as an anonymous mass. It's much easier to hate them that way. We don't have to acknowledge their individuality or their humanity. We “other” them so that we don't have to feel any compassion for them or acknowledge them as humans who also have basic human rights.
I see this in particular at the moment in the attitude toward Iranians. Iranians are the new Russians. They are the face of evil. All Iranians obviously detest us and wish nothing more than to annihilate the United States and Israel. We feel justified in calling for violence and aggression against these people because, after all, they are “the enemy.” In doing so we conveniently forget, or ignore, that most Iranians have no say in the activities of their government. Most of them simply want to live life, to take care of their families, to experience a little bit of joy. Although in many ways different from us, they too share in our common humanity. While working overseas I had the opportunity to meet a few Iranians in person. I found most of them to be quite pleasant people, very hospitable and sociable, and not at all antagonistic toward me as an American. Meeting these people challenged and changed my perception of this people group, because they reminded me that Iranians are people too.
Whenever we are inclined to label a group of people, to paint them with a broad brush, to deny them their basic human rights simply because we feel threatened by them or because they are different from us, we need to stop and remember that whatever group we are labeling is really nothing more than a collection of individuals, each with a unique personality, each seeking to live his or her life just as we are. Each person, whatever her or his nationality, ethnicity, sexuality or any other characteristic, has been created uniquely by God and is treasured by her or his Creator. When we see people in this way, can we possible treat their lives as anything less than precious?
I am deeply troubled by the calls I see in the media that call for violence and promote hatred and fear of other groups. I am particularly disturbed that many times these calls come from people who call themselves followers of Jesus Christ. I read calls for the United States to retaliate against Libyans, or Iranians, or others with overwhelming force, not thinking about the many ordinary people who will suffer and die as a result of our excessive response. To those calling for such action, these lives don't matter. They are not worth as much as our American lives. Surely God weeps when hearing such words. God, who died that all people might experience new life, does not consider an American life one bit more valuable than a Libyan, Iranian or Russian life. To think otherwise is faulty theology.
The other day I was listening to an old song by Sting from the era of the Cold War. I think its message still has value for us to day, so I close by sharing this song with you.