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On the Necessity of Equivocation

A few days ago, the Prime Minster of Canada had this to say in an official statement about the latest eruption of violence in Israel/Palestine:

Canada is unequivocally behind Israel. We support its right to defend itself, by itself, against these terror attacks, and urge Hamas to immediately cease their indiscriminate attacks on innocent Israeli civilians.

There is much that could be said about this statement.

We could probe Harper’s use of phrases like “terror attack” and question why this combination of words is used in reference to some groups and not others. We could question why our Prime Minister chose not to urge the cessation of attacks on innocent Palestinian civilians. We could perform a cursory calculation of loss of life in this region over the last few days, weeks, months, and years, and wonder about the wildly disproportionate numbers of Palestinians killed/wounded vs. Israelis. We could hold this statement about Israel’s implicit merits up to the recent treatment of a Canadian citizen and MCC peace and justice worker who was refused re-entry into Israel and barred for ten years from returning.

We could even dig a bit deeper and examine some of the geopolitical complexities that have defined the region for long decades or ask about the realities that ordinary Palestinians are forced to live with each and every day of their lives—realities like encroachment upon their (meagre) lands, intermittent electricity and water supply, relentless harassment at security checkpoints, and a countless other daily indignities that steadily erode hope and humanity. We could also muse about the increasingly muscular Canada that Stephen Harper has sought to establish in recent years and about how far our nation has drifted from its historical reputation of neutrality and peacekeeping.

But others have written and will continue to write about these things. What struck me when I read our Prime Minister’s statement was the first sentence:

Canada is unequivocally behind Israel.

Actually, my concern was narrower still, zeroing in on one word. Unequivocally. What could it possibly mean to say that Canada—a nation of many different ethnicities, religions, political persuasions, opinions and viewpoints—is, as a singular nation, unequivocally behind Israel?

A quick consultation of my dictionary yielded the following definitions for the word “unequivocal”:

  1. unambiguous; clear; having only one possible meaning or interpretation
  2. absolute; unqualified; not subject to conditions or exceptions

So, according to our Prime Minister, the current violent conflict in the Middle East is clear, it has only one possible meaning or interpretation. The Israeli government is correct and morally justified in their actions and deserves the support of Canada. This interpretation is, evidently, absolute and requires no qualifications, conditions, or exceptions.

This, it seems to me, is a truly frightening thing to say, whether about the conflict in Israel/Palestine, about other conflicts around the world, or about pretty much anything else in life. The truth, of course, is that pretty much every situation where people and groups disagree or find themselves in conflict with one another is complicated and multifaceted and requires careful consideration of multiple factors before pronouncing judgment (if judgment is pronounced at all).

Not only is offering unequivocal support naïve and shortsighted (and lazy), it may even be downright immoral. We have a duty as citizens, as thinkers, as human beings to affirm those behaviours or positions that can be affirmed, and to critique and condemn those behaviours and positions for which this is the appropriate response. No organization deserves unequivocal support. No political party, no church, no advocacy group, no business, no whatever.

Indeed, it is precisely this kind of black/white, either/or binary thinking that often gets us into huge amounts of trouble. We end up offering either a blank cheque or unthinking rejection to people and groups instead of saying things like,

  • “Well I agree with this person when they share their views about x, but not when they presume to speak about y, which they don’t know nearly as much about”
  • “Yes, I generally disagree with this party’s politics, but they make a really important point in this instance”
  • “I realize that we have supported this nation in the past, but they have begun to act in ways that my conscience no longer permits me to justify”
  • “Even though I generally find myself in a different camp than so and so theologically, I find myself in agreement with them in this case and feel compelled to say so”

In my experience, it is precisely the kinds of statements above that we so rarely hear, whether in politics or religion, or general discourse (this is true, obviously, on both ends of the political/theological spectrum). We don’t like to do the hard work of dealing with nuance and complexity, and we certainly don’t welcome the prospect of changing our minds (what would that imply about our previously held convictions?!). Black and white is almost always easier than grey, but grey is very often where anything resembling the truth happens to be found.

Regardless of how difficult/uncomfortable this approach might be, it is one that I am convinced we must constantly be seeking to cultivate, in our politics and theology, in our churches, in our educational institutions and community groups, even in our everyday relationships with our spouses and our kids. The world needs more equivocators. Or, if that term is deemed too negative, the world needs more people willing to probe beyond the easiest and most convenient answers, in the search for what is good, true, and just for all.

21 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken Peters #

    Hi Ryan, I prefer the personal note to online yapping. I want to say hi, first, and second, very well done! This is a fine piece and I want to encourage you to send it out to the Herald, the Mennonite, the MCC offices – both Winnipeg and Ottawa, well, why not all of them.



    July 15, 2014
    • Thank you very much, Ken. It’s good to hear from you.

      July 16, 2014
  2. mike #

    Love it,man

    July 15, 2014
  3. James #

    Well articulated as usual Ryan and I agree with Ken that this needs to be part of a larger circle. Without taking anything from that, however- I was also left with a little bit equivocal with your appeal for equivocation in this context. Having been on an MCC trip to Palestine my tacit support for Israel was severely challenged. I am more aware than before of the unapologetic and disproportionate response that Israel delivers when attacked. I came home with a sense that this is a land full of madness with both sides willing to sacrifice their children for causes that I find impossible to grasp. We met a Palestinian family sitting in the ruins of home that had been demolished by the Israeli military but this only increased their resolve to rebuild in the same place knowing that their children would almost certainly be subjected to the same trauma all over again. What makes parents do that, I wondered to myself? Then we toured Masada and it seemed to me that Palestine remains the land of Masada. Israel owns the legend but it seemed to me that the Palestinians are now living it. I not longer see Masada as heroic.
    As tragic as the death of the three Israeli youth was, the death of hundreds of Palestinians in response violates any sense of justice. For us westerners Israel demonstrates the most visible version of the Pax Romana. But then Pax Romana was the environment in which the early church was born and the context in which Paul told the church to pray for those in power.
    So where was my equivocation? I’m not quite sure- but that’s the nature of being equivocal, isn’t it? On the one hand- I didn’t like Harper’s language- but on the other hand, I’m not the Prime Minister of an ally of Israel either. And so I’m not sure that Harper’s language was disproportionate given that he only has words to offer at this moment.
    So there you have it- equivocal ramblings on equivocation 🙂

    July 16, 2014
    • Thank you, James.

      Yes, “madness” is a good word for how things often seem to our eyes and ears. There are centuries worth of violence and blame and mistreatment on both sides, plenty to go around. As you say, what’s going on now certainly seems to violate any normal sense of justice or fairness. This situation seems well and truly intractable, and it’s hard to even begin to know how to respond.

      I’m not sure how Harper should have responded, but I continue to think that his statement was inappropriate. It was too black and white. Israel = good; Hamas/Palestine = bad. Full stop. You’ve been to the region, so I’m guessing you know far better than I that this certainly is not the case (just like its opposite—Palestine = good; Israel = bad—is certainly not the case). I know that silence isn’t an option from the office of the Prime Minister, but I would have appreciated something a bit more nuanced, something that at least attempted to acknowledge the complexity of the situation.

      July 16, 2014
      • James #

        Harper’s statement sits poorly with me too Ryan, but I’m less convinced that it is inappropriate- in the context of war. The question that puzzles me is- why does Hamas send useless rockets into Israel when they know this is precisely what will happen? Their people will die by the scores. It just doesn’t make sense. Something else must be going on that defies the appearances. With today’s announcement that Israel was planning another round of extensive bombing in Gaza my heart sank. Maybe you are right we should withdraw support from Israel but I don’t know.

        July 16, 2014
      • I wonder about the same things… Why persist in a path that seems so obviously fruitless, so obviously destined to end with the suffering and death of your own people?

        I am hesitant to even attempt to offer an answer for the simple reason that I don’t know what it’s like to be penned up in a tiny geographic area for long decades, to be subject to constant harassment and deprivation, and to have so little hope for the future. I don’t know how I would react in such a situation. It is so remote from my experience. I do not condone what Hamas and others have done and are doing. Not by any stretch. But I also know that it’s easy to condemn reactions to situations that I have never faced.

        Like you, I watch the news, and my heart sinks.

        July 17, 2014
  4. Ryan: Great post, well articulated. Israel’s actions are totally incomprehensible to me, as is Harper’s unequivocal support. Yes, a reposting to the Mennonite media would be a great idea. BTW, I was sorry to have missed chatting with you at the MC Canada assembly. We had a few near-contact moments in the busy milling around… Next time. I hear you’re pastor in residence at CMU next fall; perhaps then.

    July 16, 2014
    • Thank you, Byron.

      I regretted not having the chance to speak in Winnipeg as well. Such is the nature of such events, I suppose. It would be great to connect in November when I am out at CMU!

      July 16, 2014
  5. Quinn #

    I think he did somewhat qualify why Canada unequivocally stands behind Israel in saying what he believes in and supports what Israels intent is and as a nation “we” support it.

    I’m not sure which color your political stripes are but if you voted for and support Harper then instead of blogging about this I think you should have wrote him a letter. You made your point and argued it well but to what end?

    Unfortunately there will always be innocent victims caught in the crossfire, bloodshed and meaningless deaths on either side of a dispute. Is Israel perfect? No. As much as we’d like to wrap this up and put a bow on it this conflict didn’t start 10,20,40 or a hundred years ago. Who are Israelis the descendants of? Who are Palestinians the descendants of? Who are God’s chosen people? The humanitarian in all of us wants to just fix it and say why can’t we just all get along and play nice. This isn’t just about what we see as humans. This is the birth pangs of something far greater. This is not just a war of flesh and blood or about land. In a sense I do unequivocally support Israel not based on what I see but because of what I know and believe. I believe we need to pray for Israel and it’s leadership and support Israel the nation as well as our own nation.

    I appreciate Harper’s leadership, and decisiveness. I don’t always agree with him either but I believe in much of what he stands for. When I look at what our country has to choose from right now for political leadership there is no one else?

    July 16, 2014
    • Quinn #

      Just saw this and I think it where Harper’s head is at and I that his statements were not from the hip but from his conviction as leader of our country.

      July 16, 2014
    • I’m not sure which color your political stripes are but if you voted for and support Harper then instead of blogging about this I think you should have wrote him a letter. You made your point and argued it well but to what end?

      Why would blogging about this and writing PM Harper a letter need to be mutually exclusive? Is it one or the other? You asked, “to what end?” this blog post. Well, I suppose the same end that motivates many people to write essays and articles and blog posts—to foster dialogue, to exchange ideas, to probe assumptions, to try to understand, to process, to pursue truth. These seem like decent enough ends to me.

      Who are Israelis the descendants of? Who are Palestinians the descendants of? Who are God’s chosen people?

      God’s “chosen people,’ to whatever extent this language remains appropriate are, to quote Jesus of Nazareth at the end of the Sermon on the Mount (after a discussion of love of enemies and doing to others as you would have done to you, among many other things), “the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” God’s “chosen people” are those who follow Jesus’ teaching and seek to accept and live according to the values of the kingdom of God, regardless of their ethnic lineage. There is no longer male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile in this kingdom. The boundary markers have changed.

      In a sense I do unequivocally support Israel not based on what I see but because of what I know and believe. I believe we need to pray for Israel and it’s leadership and support Israel the nation as well as our own nation

      Do you think that the modern, post-1948 Israeli state is directly equivalent to biblical Israel?

      Of course, I think that we ought to pray for Israel and its leaders. But we are not required by the Bible or anything else to offer unequivocal support to a nation that often acts in clear violation of its own Scriptures (to say nothing of the teachings of Jesus, which should be the standard by which we evaluate everything, as followers of Jesus). Indeed, the Hebrew prophets give us a pretty good indication that when Israel ceased to act as they were commanded to by YHWH—when they ceased to pursue justice, when they bowed down to idols, when they failed to be a light to the nations—they were hauled off into exile. Even in the Bible, Israel did not get a blank cheque simply for being Israel. They shouldn’t today either.

      July 17, 2014
      • Quinn #

        I’m not trying to be sarcastic I’m truly trying to understand what your saying. Maybe you understand the scriptures better than I. So I’m seriously asking that when God made a covenant with Abraham an “everlasting” covenant in Genesis 17:19 Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.

        Did it became null and void after the New Testament?

        July 17, 2014
      • I didn’t assume any sarcasm whatsoever. I was simply trying to respond to your comment as best I could.

        I would say that the covenant that God made with Abraham was expanded and fulfilled in a new way with Jesus. Jesus inaugurated a new covenant where the people of God were defined not by ethnicity but by their embrace of the kingdom of God and of Jesus as saviour, Lord, and teacher. The new covenant is no longer limited to a specific ethnic group but can include, along with the Jews, anyone who embraces Jesus’ way.

        And, it’s important to note, the covenant was always a two-way street. As I said above, Israel never got a blank cheque to act however they wanted, even in Scripture.

        July 17, 2014
  6. Wonderful blog post, Ryan. I have shared it further on my FB page. As you say … parenting, teaching in the gym or in the classroom, development work, political leadership … all need room for self-doubt and even confusion. Faith, if I can stretch your point, grows much better in a space where there is a bit of confusion and doubt and self doubt … than where things are black and white with no provision for the other …

    July 17, 2014
    • Thank you very much, Abe. I couldn’t agree more.

      July 17, 2014
  7. mike #

    I think it’s such a telling statement on the sad state of affairs within Chrisendom that we Proud Americans, living in this God fearing land of Democracy and Freedom for all, would choose to totally disregard the same basic Rights to fellow Human Beings living elsewhere, owing to “Religious” reasons…but then, Christians through-out history have always been a bloody lot.

    “Religion itself was not an activity in pursuit of truth; it was rather born to be a significant part of the security system of human life. Only when we recognize this defense mechanism in religion can we grasp the meaning of the constant presence in primitive religion, and certainly still present in Western religion, of an intense, even killing, anger. Irrational hostility is a symptom of hysteria. Anger has always marked the religious establishment. This is why so many Christian leaders historically have justified such things as the stifling of debate with ex cathedra pronouncements, the persecution of dissenters, the excommunication of non conformists, the execution of heretics, and the engagement of religious wars. This is also why anger is always just beneath the surface of organized religion in almost every one of its Western manifestations. The preaching of evangelists is marked by finger pointing and face-contorting expressions of hostility while they talk about the wrath of God. Anger lies underneath the glee expressed by the preachers of Christian history when they assign unbelievers to Hell. …Anger is the reason why the Church throughout its history kept writing creed after creed to clarify just who is in and out of this religious enterprise so that religious people would know who their enemies were and could act appropriately against them.” (Why Christianity Must Change or Die-John Shelby Spong)

    July 22, 2014
    • Hmm, that seems to be a fairly one-sided presentation of “religion’s” role throughout history (it’s always a risky business to speak about “religion” as some kind of monolithic whole). Religion was never a pursuit of truth? Was always an expression of anger? Was always about power and control and the stifling of thought and expression?

      It’s a wonder that anything good and life-giving managed to emerge out of all these millennia of religious nastiness.

      July 23, 2014
  8. mike #


    July 23, 2014

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