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A few years ago I attended a conference in upstate New York where I met a young woman from Saudi Arabia. Since the theme of the event was women’s leadership, I couldn’t resist asking how she felt about gender inequality in her homeland.
“Women in my country would have more rights if they could organize,” she said, “but they can’t organize because they can’t get along.”
She shared a few stories to demonstrate her point, but I remember wondering at the time whether I was listening to a deep cultural truth – or merely just one person’s opinion.
Cut to a few weeks ago when the New York Times ran an excellent feature entitled Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart and, lo and behold, there it was.
Listed among the top reasons peace escapes the Middle East is….social infighting.
Breathe that one in for a moment while thinking about the division we’ve seen this week.
For example, as I type my hometown of Charlotte has erupted into chaos.
In a scene that has become all-too-familiar, violence is being used to protest violence – a trend that will continue until we become as good at rising up to defend what we are for as we are at attacking what we are against.
This, incidentally, has been one of the Middle East’s most crippling missteps. What was once a thriving and vibrant part of the world has deteriorated into a twisted mess of generational distrust. But what else could it become without an anchor of unifying principles?
Note the key word here is unifying. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, for instance, actually became a movement because its unifying principle was nonviolence. Dr. King learned from Gandhi that, since the destination will always mirror the path, a violent demand for justice is doomed to fail.
Consider this: Where would we be today if the marchers at Selma had armed themselves and fired back? Or what if protesters at the Woolworth’s lunch counter choose to smash the windows to express their frustration?
Look at this photo and imagine what it would feel like to be the man sitting in that chair.
His grievances were real, but so were his principles, and this is why the West has imperfectly moved towards peace through social equality in ways that have (so far) failed in the Middle East.
Admittedly, we still have a long way to go to “bind up the nation’s wounds” as Lincoln phrased it after the Civil War but, thanks to the first Civil Rights Movement, at least we have a template for what works.
It’s not enough to merely be against injustice. We’ve seen what that looks like.
Instead, we must be for peace.
And so the question for us all right now is: What does that look like?