‘I Am Because You Are’
by Robert C. Koehler
Their grief is too profound and too public. Their words have to be taken seriously — allowed to mix with the politics and the self-interest and the fear, those generic trivializers of the national conversation.
“This is a Promise we make to our precious children. Because each child, every human life is filled with promise, and though we continue to be filled with unbearable pain we choose love, belief, and hope instead of anger.”
The website is called the Sandy Hook Promise. It advances no particular agenda, except to proclaim . . . the value of life. And in so doing, the site’s organizers — residents of Newtown, Conn., wounded by the tragedy — quietly insist that this matters, not abstractly but politically.
And because it matters, and because there is a void at the center of our lives that is filled with violence, something needs to change, and a different sort of conversation needs to begin, which addresses violence and national identity and change — what to do next, and what to do after that — holistically.
You know, without self-interest, without any sort of certainty we had on, let us say, Dec. 13, 2012, a day before the shootings. What do we value most of all? Let a conversation, and eventually, a plan of action, flow from there.
“This is a Promise . . .
“To have the conversations on ALL the issues. Conversations where listening is as important as speaking. Conversations where even those with the most opposing views can debate in good will.”
This is something people who long for peace and a change in the nation’s default, military-industrial consensus have been seeking for the duration of my lifetime, and no doubt well before that. Might this really be the time to begin? I feel as though the grief is too large, the shock is too great — even a month later — for it not to be the time. How big will the conversation get?
In humble anticipation of a conversation larger than I can imagine, I offer, as a starting point, a word I myself learned just over a year ago. It’s from the Zulu and Xhosa languages of tribal South Africa: “ubuntu.” One translation is: “I am because you are.”
This is a word that embodies a concept that takes my breath away. It shatters the isolation that surrounds us, a byproduct of the hyper-individualism Western society has pursued so righteously in the industrial era; and it interrupts the easy creation of enemies. To acknowledge this word, one cannot dehumanize another person, let alone a whole nation, religion or ethnic group.
“It is the essence of being human,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu has written. “It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness, it speaks about compassion. A person with Ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. . . . The quality of Ubuntu gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them. . . .
“Ubuntu is not easy to describe because it has no equivalent in any of the Western languages. . . . The solitary individual is in our understanding a contradiction in terms. You are a person through other persons.”
And so the conversation begins. And since the goal is to address violence holistically, I think about the dead children we have yet to grieve, because we have killed them ourselves.
A number of commentators, for instance, pointed out shortly after the Sandy Hook murders that the U.S. has killed 178 children in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen in its drone war over the last decade, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. We haven’t, as a nation, even noticed these children — or the thousands more who died from bombs, bullets and the toxic residue of the war on terror — let alone grieved for them.
“It’s easy to express rage over the Newtown shooting because so few of us bear any responsibility for it,” Glenn Greenwald wrote last month in The Guardian. “Fury is easy because it’s easy to tell ourselves that the perpetrator . . . has so little to do with us and our actions.
“Exactly the opposite is true for the violence that continuously kills children and other innocent people in the Muslim world.”
And the conversation quickly becomes uncomfortable, as we sit and listen in the awareness that there’s more to this issue than angry tirades about “them” — the monsters and the crazies. A collective responsibility begins to emerge. I am because you are. This idea doesn’t stop at the national border. The United States is, in fact, the world’s biggest perpetrator of violence. Even if we have no interest in ending our wars, or war itself, we have to begin asking whether the violence we perpetrate on our dehumanized enemies is somehow coming home.
This is just the beginning of the conversation, and it’s about solutions as well as blame. It’s about nonviolent conflict resolution and the building of real peace. It’s also about facing up to climate change and learning how to create an environmentally sustainable global civilization. If we love our children, we also love the future — and take responsibility for it.
Robert C. Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer, and a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at [email protected], visit his website at commonwonders.com, or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.