How should we confront evil? A gallery of quotes by Gandhi currently on Beliefnet offers a teaching in response to this question — a response which fascinates and troubles me. It is easy to read the quotes, especially the one which teaches that truth and love always win and get a quick hit of inspiration. But is it true? Do they always win? Are they winning right now in Darfur? Did they win in Rwanda? How about on 9/11? In Sbarro’s Pizza in Jerusalem, were they victorious there? How about in the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilah? Did truth and love triumph in Auschwitz?
I am no cynic and I believe in the human capacity to transcend the evil that sometimes fills our world, challenges decency and threatens our existence. In fact, that belief is central to any spiritual orientation in life. But I also wonder if romantic notions about everything eventually working out do not function as some kind of spiritual anesthetic, dulling our ability to feel our own pain, let alone that of others, and take steps to remedy the situation.
Each of the horrors I mentioned above was propagated by people who believed that they were remedying the situation of the world, so I know this is not simple. But I wonder if it isn’t important for those of us who take inspiration from quotes by Gandhi to also make a list of places in which truth and love are getting the tar beaten out of them and see how that list could inspire us also.
Perhaps the real brilliance of Gandhi’s quote is the most overlooked and seemingly least inspired word in the quote: “and”. It’s easy to be inspired by Truth with a capital T. Love? That has moved us since the beginning of time. And who doesn’t want to win?
But imagine if whatever victories we hope to achieve in the name of Truth were also held to the test of being experienced as acts of love, even by those over who we triumph? What if the message of this teaching is not that truth always wins and love always wins, but that when truth and love are combined together, they always win?
And as inspiring as this all is, perhaps we ought not to leave people in need to the long sweep of history which Gandhi promises will eventually save them from their suffering. Sometimes there is no time to wait for the eventual fall of those who hurt and oppress us, and there really are times when a fight is needed.
Judaism is not a pacifist tradition, even if it loathes the taking of even a single life. The idea that people can, under certain circumstances, actually be obligated to take a life is as old as the Bible and it’s a belief which is continued in rabbinic tradition.
Perhaps the clearest example is that the Ten Commandments do NOT, as popularly mistranslated, say “Thou shall not kill”. The Hebrew is quite clear. It says, “Thou shall not murder”. The difference lies in the latter’s acceptance that not all killing is forbidden, only that which is deemed unlawful.
Rightly or wrongly, that’s what the Bible says. And perhaps that should not surprise or even upset us. In fact, the teaching that murder, not killing, is absolutely forbidden may be part of the Bible’s brilliance. After all, is there nothing for which you would ever fight?