The following is the keynote address given at the Rothko Chapel in Houston on March 30 on the occasion of the presentation of the Oscar Romero Award to Ishai Menuchin, chairman of Yesh Gvul (“There Is a Limit”), the Israeli soldiers’ movement for selective refusal to serve in the occupied territories. –The Editors
Allow me to invoke not one but two, only two, who were heroes–among millions of heroes. Who were victims–among tens of millions of victims.
The first: Oscar Arnulfo Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, murdered in his vestments, while saying mass in the cathedral on March 24, 1980–twenty-three years ago–because he had become “a vocal advocate of a just peace, and had openly opposed the forces of violence and oppression.” (I am quoting from the description of the Oscar Romero Award, being given today to Ishai Menuchin.)
The second: Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old college student from Olympia, Washington, murdered in the bright neon-orange jacket with Day-Glo striping that “human shields” wear to make themselves quite visible, and possibly safer, while trying to stop one of the almost daily house demolitions by Israeli forces in Rafah, a town in the southern Gaza Strip (where Gaza abuts the Egyptian border), on March 16, 2003. Standing in front of a Palestinian physician’s house that had been targeted for demolition, Corrie, one of eight young American and British human-shield volunteers in Rafah, had been waving and shouting at the driver of an oncoming armored D-9 bulldozer through her megaphone, then dropped to her knees in the path of the supersized bulldozer…which did not slow down.
Two emblematic figures of sacrifice, killed by the forces of violence and oppression to which they were offering nonviolent, principled, dangerous opposition.
Let’s start with risk. The risk of being punished. The risk of being isolated. The risk of being injured or killed. The risk of being scorned. We are all conscripts in one sense or another. For all of us, it is hard to break ranks; to incur the disapproval, the censure, the violence of an offended majority with a different idea of loyalty. We shelter under banner words like justice, peace and reconciliation that enroll us in new, if much smaller and relatively powerless, communities of the like-minded. That mobilize us for the demonstration, the protest and the public performance of acts of civil disobedience–not for the parade ground and the battlefield.
To fall out of step with one’s tribe; to step beyond one’s tribe into a world that is larger mentally but smaller numerically– if alienation or dissidence is not your habitual or gratifying posture, this is a complex, difficult process. It is hard to defy the wisdom of the tribe, the wisdom that values the lives of members of the tribe above all others. It will always be unpopular– it will always be deemed unpatriotic–to say that the lives of the members of the other tribe are as valuable as one’s own. It is easier to give one’s allegiance to those we know, to those we see, to those with whom we are embedded, to those with whom we share–as we may–a community of fear.
Let’s not underestimate the force of what we oppose. Let’s not underestimate the retaliation that may be visited on those who dare to dissent from the brutalities and repressions thought justified by the fears of the majority. We are flesh. We can be punctured by a bayonet, torn apart by a suicide bomber. We can be crushed by a bulldozer, gunned down in a cathedral. Fear binds people together. And fear disperses them. Courage inspires communities: the courage of an example–for courage is as contagious as fear. But courage, certain kinds of courage, can also isolate the brave.