In the world of human thought and action today, humanitarianism is definitely on the wane. Brutality and trust in force are in the ascendant.
– Albert Schweitzer (1936)
In recent weeks two events in our world have shocked us beyond belief, namely the Malaysian Airlines crash in the Ukraine and the current conflict in Gaza. Both these clearly demonstrate, what is foremost in the minds of some, is not an ethic based on reverence for life, but the ideological power of the military over the weak, with a total neglect of empathy and compassion for the innocent who are suffering. We have seen unspeakable cruelty along with stupid decisions that have produced and are producing continued horror and evil with unbelievable suffering.
After witnessing these events unfold live on TV News, I reflected how ethics and values based on a reverence for life appear to have been subtly rejected by our modern world. This has been replaced by a strange mix of narcissism and adherence to ideologies, which view human life as just ‘collateral damage’ that cannot be avoided, all in the name for ‘justice’ over a piece of land.
In our world over the last century there has been an immense stride in technological discoveries, which have produced benefits for good in many spheres of human endeavour. Let us not forget the paradox that technological advancement has also been used and is being used as an instrument for mass murder and suffering of the innocent right before our very eyes. Another paradox are the advances in communication technology, which enable us to view the horror of the Ukraine Plane Crash and the conflict in Gaza live in our living rooms like it is incorporated into the guidance systems of the modern weaponry used.
Watching these events unfold I have struggled to make a response, which is authentic to my own basic philosophy of life. I knew I needed a guide to help me find my way through my own internal angst to an authentic place, were I could once more see things clearly. I found that guide in Albert Schweitzer, who while searching for a universal concept of ethics for our time, writes:
“On a trip on the Ogowe River (Gabon Central West Africa) in 1915 it came to me that reverence for life is the only basis on which a viable ethic can be built.”
…“Ethics is nothing other than Reverence for Life. Reverence for Life affords me my fundamental principle of morality, namely that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life and to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil……
The phrase ‘Reverence for Life’ is a translation of the German phrase: “Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben“.He believed that Reverence for Life is a concept that develops from observation of the world around us. Schweitzer had a view that all of life was interconnected and interdependent; consequently what affects one affects the other. He writes:
So nature compels us to recognise the fact of mutual dependence, each life necessarily helping the other lives which are linked to it. In the very fibres of our being we bear within ourselves the fact of the solidarity of life.’ …..‘Life demands that we see through to the solidarity of life which can in any degree recognise as having some similarity to the life that is in us.’….There is in each of us the ‘Will to live’, which is based on the mystery of what we call ‘taking an interest.’ We cannot live alone. Though man is an egoist, he is never completely so. He must also have some interest in life about himself.’
Schweitzer invites us to consider that at the heart of all human beings is this will to live, to know that life is worth living. This will to live is inherent in all life; consequently we must regard other life than our own with equal reverence. To help, serve and enhance another life is spiritual goodness in which we serve the mystery of the sacredness of all Life. He is here introducing us to community with our belonging to another. It is important to be aware that we are all part of life. No person is an island, independent of another.
To return to the conflict and suffering in Gaza, the people there are more than just images on a TV screen filmed thousands of kilometres away. They are our brothers and sisters; they are experiencing grief and loss, like we who have felt grief and loss. They too have a will to live like we have a will to live and blood flows in their veins, like it flows in our veins.
We may not be able to effect significant change in current areas of conflict on a world stage, but within our local communities we can make a difference. How do we respond to those who are different, the other who speaks in a different accent, dresses differently and eats different kinds of food and worships in a different way to us? We are not superior to them; we are all human travellers on the journey of life.
Before we take the speck out of our brother’s or sister’s eye we need to take the plank out of our own. In other words, we need to look at our humanity first. In what ways are our thinking and actions contributing or not contributing to compassion and respect for those who are different to us? How would our ethics and values based on a reverence for life make a difference for good?
Some may base their ethics upon the Bible. They are able to quote chapter and verse to ‘prove’ that their ethical approach is in accordance with God’s will. Alas, unless we have love, we are nothing more than a noisy gong and a clanging symbol. Unless we practise compassion we are hypocritical and don’t walk the reverence for life talk. Then compassion and respect for the person is lost under an avalanche of words without love.
There are No limits to the practice of love, compassion and the reverence for life. Once a person draws a line in the sand and says ‘I draw a limit to my love or reverence for life here;’ that person has ceased to love or have a reverence for life. When we have reverence for life we are seeking to live our life according to the mystery of the sacred presence whose very essence is Love.
We need to remember, what we see might not always be as it is; for what we are shapes what we see. Our interpretation of other people and our assessment of what is around us is significantly shaped by our own prejudices along with our ego determined ideas and drives.
William Blake (poet) describes it like this:
‘If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.
We play a game with ourselves in which we overlook what is often too painful to contemplate and focus on what reinforces our prejudices and attitudes. It is very easy through our imagination to create judgements, which become ‘truth’. They support our ways of being and thinking, when there are other ways of seeing and knowing.
When ego dominates and ego-centricity becomes the normal way of seeing and being, the dignity and respect of others is trampled underfoot and conflict becomes inevitable. When ego becomes porous reverence for life becomes a possibility, respect and dignity has a chance to be present and reconciliation becomes possible.
Schweitzer once said:
‘No one can give a definition of the soul. But we know what it feels like. The soul is the sense of something higher than ourselves, something that stirs in us, our thoughts, hopes and aspirations which go out to the world of goodness, truth and beauty. The soul is a burning desire to breathe in this world of light and never to lose it – to remain children of light.’
As we breathe in the world of the soul light, which is always the world of goodness, truth and beauty, we will seek never to destroy life that breathes, unless it is unavoidable. That to me is a reverence for life, which our world and our nation desperately needs…..
Meanwhile peace within a reverence for life