From time to time, I notice the sound of the Alaska or Delta jetliners that fly overhead on their departure or arrival at our airport. But since Thursday, every time a plane flies overhead I can’t help thinking about the passengers on that Malaysian Airlines flight that was shot down over eastern Ukraine days ago.
This last Thursday morning, I had just checked the breaking news on my computer. A few moments later, I checked again and there was the terrible news. In the space of just a few moments, almost three hundred people had lost their lives.
Our days seem to be so defined by news of wars and natural disasters, of conflict and terrorism, that a tragedy such as the deaths of the unfortunate passengers on that airliner will soon be eclipsed by future events just as shocking and terrible — or worse.
We cannot overlook the latest episode of violence from the Holy Land, where for the past two weeks Hamas fighters in Gaza have been indiscriminately targeting nearby Israeli towns and cities with hundreds of missile strikes daily. In retaliation, Israeli fighter bombers and artillery have attacked over 1,600 targets in Gaza, leaving 230 Palestinians dead. The latest news is that Israel has launched a ground invasion into Gaza, a tiny enclave of only a 139 square miles inhabited by 1.82 million Palestinian refugees, which will inevitably result in even more death and destruction.
But as I reflect on these deeply unsettling events, I am reminded that all of the souls lost in the destruction of that airliner, and those killed and wounded in Gaza and Israel, are actual persons — not statistics. As news sources continue to provide us with daily statistics of the dead and wounded, we see the chilling effects of hatred and violence. Every single victim was someone’s son or daughter, husband or wife, mother or father, sister or brother. Each of them was irreplaceable and unique, beloved by God who loved them into being and even now continues to hold them in love, compassion and mercy.
It is all too easy to become hardened to the unrelenting news of violence and hatred in our world, whether in a tragedy such as the one over the skies of the Ukraine, or between nations and peoples or in our own communities and neighborhoods. Pope Francis, commenting last Sunday on the conflict in the Holy Land, called for “insistent prayers” for peace. Asked if the most recent outbreak of fighting there meant that his prayer meeting with Israeli leader Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was in vain, the Holy Father replied, “No. Prayer helps us not to be conquered by evil or to resign ourselves to violence and hatred.”
I was deeply moved to learn that the mother of one of the three Israeli teenagers recently killed (whose kidnapping and brutal murders by Palestinian extremists were the catalyst for the escalating violence in Gaza) reached out in condolence to the Palestinian mother and family of a Jerusalem teenager killed in reprisal by Israeli extremists.
Other Israelis came in person to offer their apologies and sympathy to the family of the young Palestinian teenager. Understandably, it was an awkward, painful and difficult moment for everyone, given the level of distrust and anger felt by those on both sides of the conflict.
Yet, in the end these people courageously refused to “become resigned to violence and hatred.” At the end of the visit, the weeping mother of the slain boy was surrounded by Israeli women, many of whom were also in tears. She said, “I want them here. I want these women to support me.”
In the words of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, “Vengeance begets vengeance and blood begets blood. The innocent young people murdered, all murdered young people, are victims, sacrificed on the diabolical altar of hatred.”
In reaching out to those whose hearts have been broken by the loss of their beloved children comes the possibility of ending the cycle of vengeance and bloodshed.
Pope Francis, calling on all of us to recommit ourselves to peacemaking, stated: “Violence calls for more violence and feeds the mortal circle of hatred.”
Without denying the importance of nations and societies to promote justice in the world, and even, as a last resort, utilizing force if needed, our goal must be to work and pray for peace and do everything in our power to break the “mortal circle of hatred” in our world, in our society and in our hearts.
• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.