Subverting Hatred

Excerpt from the Introduction: "Everything Is Different Now"

By Daniel Smith-Christopher


Within a day of the horrendous destruction on September 11, 2001, I was contacted by a local news reporter who had discovered my role as director of Peace Studies at Loyola Marymount University of Los Angeles. During the brief introductions at the beginning of the phone call, she learned that I was a Quaker.

"Quakers?... You people are pacifists, right?" The moment I acknowledged this to be true, her pleasant tone evaporated, and her next question quickly followed: "So... now what do you people have to say?"

I passed over the distasteful use of "you people," understanding that the expectation was clear and unequivocal: I should now renounce my commitment to nonviolence in the light of the horrible violence in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania just a day before. I assured her that now was a time for mourning, not a time for violence or violent language and that, in any case, I would not be renouncing my commitment to nonviolence. Clearly disappointed, she persisted briefly: "But haven't things changed for you now?" When I was not drawn into an argument with this question, she quickly lost interest in the conversation. There would be no sound byte from an angry, former pacifist after all.

The reporter's call was motivated by a sentiment that I have heard innumerable times since that fateful day: "Everything is different now." For those of us who live and work and pray within religious traditions, this point of view represents a particularly popular sentiment, and thus it seems an important place to begin an introduction to the 10th Anniversary edition of Subverting Hatred: The Challenge of Nonviolence in Religious Traditions . In this edition, each contributor to this volume has written within his or her own tradition in this edition, just as in the first edition. Most of the chapters are unchanged since they were first published in 1998. Some new material is included. And yet the same principle holds: we each bring the perspective of our faith to expressions like "Everything is different now." As a Christian professor of religion for whom Christian Scripture guides life and work, my approach to this sentiment is colored by over two millennia of human experience.

Initially, of course, the paradox is immediately clear. How can one reflect on ancient religious wisdom and on writings that are over 2,000 years old in order to shed light on the idea that "Everything is different now"? If this is true, then most religious wisdom would be, by definition, irrelevant because so much of it was written before 2001. Those of us working within faith traditions have an obvious bias against the notion that any new situations or issues would render religious wisdom "outdated." But the life of faith is about understanding change as well as continuity. Thus, understanding how ancient wisdom applies to contemporary realities is one of the consolations and the challenges of faith.

In the Western religious traditions of Judaism and Christianity, we are familiar with the fact that the Hebrew Scriptures express violent sentiments at times. Sadly, we are less familiar with the fact that these same scriptures often seriously question human propensities to violence, and furthermore, regularly express deeply peaceful sentiments as well. In reply to the notion that "everything is different," I would like to suggest listening to the "Blood of Jezreel." It may seem like a strange image at first; how does one "listen" to blood? The Judeo-Christian Scriptures, however, feature a striking image in Genesis 4, where history's first act of lethal violence is narrated: Cain murders his brother Abel and God tells Cain, "Your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground" (Gen. 4:10) To listen to blood is to hear cries of injustice and pain. A very late pre-Christian Jewish writing called 4 Esdras repeats this older sentiment about God "hearing" blood, and places it in the context of justice and injustice: "Innocent and righteous blood cries out to me, and the souls of the righteous cry out continually" (4 Esd. 15:8).   

"Listening to blood" is thus a particularly striking way to speak of examining issues of violence and nonviolence. Why is it, then, that when we hear the modern sentiment that "everything has changed" in the context of international relations, it is usually accompanied by the same old, decidedly-unchanged call to vengeance and still more violence. If we could "listen to blood" more carefully, we might see this spirit of vengeance more clearly. Furthermore, I want to suggest that "listening to blood" offers a way to seriously question what only appears to be "justice" or "righteousness" in the "new" situation of the twenty-first century. As strange as it seems, as we pay attention to these kinds of images and tune in to Biblical "debates," we may hear a more peaceful perspective through a better understanding of this notion of "listening to blood."

All quotations from the Bible are from the New Revised Standard Version, 1989.

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