Sunday, February 18, 2007

Manos Blancas. Can They Break The Chain of Violence?

"White Hands for Peace" Demonstration - Madrid, 2004

Sunday morning at Mass I was still ruminating over the previous post and the lively discussion it provoked, when I was hit straight in the chops with the day's Gospel reading, like manna from heaven...

Lk 6:27-38

Jesus said to his disciples:
“To you who hear I say,
love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.
To the person who strikes you on one cheek,
offer the other one as well,
and from the person who takes your cloak,
do not withhold even your tunic.
Give to everyone who asks of you,
and from the one who takes what is yours do not demand it back.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
For if you love those who love you,
what credit is that to you?
Even sinners love those who love them.
And if you do good to those who do good to you,
what credit is that to you?
Even sinners do the same.
If you lend money to those from whom you expect repayment,
what credit is that to you?
Even sinners lend to sinners,
and get back the same amount.
But rather, love your enemies and do good to them,
and lend expecting nothing back;
then your reward will be great
and you will be children of the Most High,
for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

“Stop judging and you will not be judged.
Stop condemning and you will not be condemned.
Forgive and you will be forgiven.
Give, and gifts will be given to you;
a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing,
will be poured into your lap.
For the measure with which you measure
will in return be measured out to you.”

Christ didn't expect that everyone who heard Him was going to follow Him, but that those whom He called would be recognizable in how radically different their behavior was going to be. As Christians, if we wish to be taken serious by anyone else as such, the tit-for-tat cycle of offense, recrimination, retaliation, and retribution that we find in the world all around us is not supposed to be the way for us. As supposed Leaven, Salt of the Earth, Light on a Hill, etc..., we have to be the ones that break the chains that bind together the logic of escalation and violence, or presumably no one else will.

At any rate, the previous post was really over a minor matter in the grander scheme of things. This past week I was reminded that we are coming up on the third annivesary of the Madrid Train Bombings, and that the trial of the 29 surviving co-conspirators in the plot is now underway.

The bombing occurred on March 11, 2004, and when it happened I was as shocked and horrified as anyone else, and concerned about my friends in Madrid. I was also very interested in seeing how Spain was going to react to it, knowing how fiercely the Spanish had been opposed to the sending of troops to Iraq in support of the Coalition effort in 2003. The bombings occurred just a few days before the national elections, and Aznar's Conservative government bungled badly by initially pointing the accusing finger towards the Basque separatist group ETA. Huge crowds took to the street in Spain, over 11 million people, representing more than 1 out of every 4 people in the country, expressing sorrow and solidarity with the victims, and peaceful defiance in the face of terrorism. When news came out a day or two later that a Moroccan cell suspected of Al Qaeda ties was most likely behind the attack, a popular wave of anger swept aside Aznar and brought Zapatero's Socialist Party back into power.

Needless to say, with the Socialists back in charge, the Spanish troops were soon recalled from Iraq. I remember thinking at the time that in doing so, that the Spanish government might have just signed a death warrant for residents of Rome, London, and Warsaw, as terror attacks were likely to occur in those cities in order to force America's other partners out of the coalition too. Sure enough, in July of 2005, train bombings occurred in London as well. (Note: In all fairness, as author Tom Ricks has pointed out, Spain signed onto a peacekeeping mission, not a combat mission, which it clearly had turned out to be by 2004)

What struck me in particular, however, was the unequivocal, broadly supported, and unhesitant determination of the Spanish people to respond with a sense of defiant nonviolence. Rather than seeing the necessity of binding themseves closer to Americans and our approach in exacting justice through the use of force, as one might expect, they seemed as a nation to embrace the principles of nonviolence in perfect lockstep. In their huge street demonstrations and memorial services, they took to holding up their white-painted hands ("manos blancas"), and slogans like "Basta Ya" ("Enough Already"). The Spanish of course, with their long years of having to deal with ETA, were already well-familiarized with terrorism, and the Manos Blancas movement had actually come out of that experience...

The “white hands” (“manos blancas”) symbol did in fact originate in Spain, when students in Madrid used it in 1996 as a sign of innocence and of their revulsion at the murder, by the ETA terrorist group, of Francisco Tomás y Valiente, Professor of Law at the city’s Universidad Autónoma. Since then it has been used in numerous demonstrations, mainly against ETA. It was later associated with the “Spirit of Ermua” - the resounding “Enough is enough” response by Spanish society to the cold-blooded murder of Ermua Councillor Miguel Angel Blanco in July 1997. There is now also an association, the Asociación Manos Blancas, which gives awards to those who are outstanding in their defence of the principles of freedom.

Why was their reaction so different from ours? Is it because of their history, that still holds the bitter memories of a fairly recent Civil war? Is it because they were used to terrorism? Is it the fact that we felt that the oceans and our huge defense budgets made us invulnerable? Does our superpower status make us feel like we have something more vested in protecting? Is it lazy, effete, comfortable, decadent, Western European affluence that doesn't want to be disturbed... or is it something more principled?

The Church never tires of lamenting over Europe... for it's loss of faith, it's relativism, it's consumerism, it's loss of its sense of roots, it's failure to protect the family, it's aging population, etc... What I find interesting in this case was the way that the Spanish manifested their faith, the Christianity that lay latent within them, in a way that I suspect Christ would have approved of, and should have made the Church proud of them. As far as I could tell, it was not really a Church-directed movement. It wasn't papal exhortations, bishop's statements, or Church organizations that drove it. This is something that has come into the collective continental European soul, and I'm not sure of the origin. I don't know if it is a secular post-modern thing, or if it is a vaguely Christian, eastern Buddhist influenced ethos or what, but somehow in its manifestation, it is an entirely biblical, Christian response.

I remember how my friends and I snickered and laughed at Richard Gere when he stood before the memorial service for the fallen firefighters of 9/11 and was heckled when he said:

"The horrendous energy that we’re all feeling, and the possibility of turning it into more violence, and revenge, we can stop that. We can take that energy and turn it into something else. We can turn it into compassion, and to love, and to understanding."

"That’s apparently unpopular right now, but that’s alright."

Interesting. In this nation, in which we supposedly take our faith so much more seriously, in this Godly nation, we laughed at him. Over there, they would not have.

Not that there isn't plenty of criticism leveled at the Spanish for their stance. London was bombed, and ETA has apparently called off their cease-fire, so nonviolence continues to be challenged and questioned by pragmatists and hard-headed realists. The British didn't react quite like us, but certainly not like the Spanish either.
The Brussels Journal noted the words of French writer Pascal Bruckner in comparing the reactions between Spain and Britain to being bombed:

Together with his people [Blair] continues a tradition of liberty which I sometimes think continental Europe has lost interest in.”

Bruckner thinks this loss is the result of the continental West European tendency to “interiorise” guilt. “Certain intellectuals and opinion makers seem to think that every crime committed against us results from Western ‘domination’ of the world.” Referring to the leftist paper Le Parisien, which the day after the London bombings headed “Al-Qaeda punishes London,” Bruckner comments: “They make it seem as if Osama bin Laden is a schoolmaster caning misbehaved pupils who had the bad idea of joining the Americans. […] This attitude [of ‘interiorisation’] is extremely perverse: it actually boils down to shifting the guilt from the criminals to the victims.”
Some took those upraised white hands as a sign of surrender....

The challenge of pacifism and trying to live out the beatitudes in the cold, harsh reality of the real world... Who knows the answer? Will the debate go on and on right up until we destroy ourselves?

Clip of Come Back Jesus -- Alpha Blondy


Charles of New Haven said...

Thanks for the introduction to Manos Blancas, Jeff. Right away I thought of the "Black Blocs" that my friends and I were so excited to be a part of years ago...I don't know if they still exist. And people in our culture deny the power--the reality--of symbol!

Thanks for the reminder of the Gere is remarkable that in a country with such high religious attendance and professed theism, simple, ordinary, spiritual points make no sense.

Thanks as always.

Jeff said...

Hi Friar,

Good to see you. I'm not really familiar with Black Blocs. From what I can see out on the web, it looks like they represent an ad-hoc means for supporting various protests in the anarchist tradition?

The power of symbols is very real, and it is always interesting to see how the meaning of a symbol, like a cross or a swastika, can change over time, or mean different things to different people. For example, during the eighties, I recall that the "Manos Blancas" was the name of the right-wing death squad in El Salvador, that used to leave the White Hand symbol behind its murders as a sign of terror and intimidation.

cowboyangel said...

Jeff, another thoughtful post.

It's interesting, I actually thought of the Luke passage, while walking down into town on Saturday afternoon. I considered mentioning it, but thought it might sound critical and self-righteous in the context of the discussion. Glad to see you bring it up. It's always been a key scripture for me.

As far as Spain pulling out of Iraq, you've failed to mention what was, for me, by far the most important point: an astounding 92% of Spaniards were AGAINST the invasion of Iraq in the first place. I didn't think it was possible to get 92% of the Spaniars to agree on ANYTHING, much less the invasion of Iraq. The Spanish are still a young democracy, only 20 years into the process after 40 years of dictatorship. 92% of a population seems like a pretty good indication that the people had made their decision. Then, Aznar, in his quest to kiss Bush's ass, basically said - screw you and your democracy, I'm sending troops anyway. The protests in Spain in the lead-up to the war were among the largest in the world, with 4 million people showing up in Barcelona, a city of 5 million. Is it any surprise then that Spain pulled out once a responsive government was in power? They should never have gone in the first place if Democracy was a reality.

I think we here in the U.S. forget - or never paid attention to - the astonishing number of people in the world who were against this war. Spain wasn't the only country with those kind of numbers. Mexico, Japan and several other countries also polled in the high 80s and low 90s in opposition to the invasion. Even in England more than 60% opposed the invasion. The people of the world CLEARLY spoke up and were basically rejected by leaders with personal agendas. I don't think it's fair or even remotely plausible to blame Spain for what happened in London. The only people who can and should be blamed for London are George W. Bush, Richard Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld and their supporters.

If you ask me, among many other atrocities we've committed by invading Iraq, one of the biggest was our cynical rejection of true democracy. Americans wonder why the rest of the world hates us so much now? One reason is that we preach "democracy" so strongly while delivering ruin to others because it benefits us.

I don't see how the Church or anyone else could lament over the condition of the family in Europe. I've never in my life seen such a strong tradition of family as I did in Spain. The country where families are having trouble is here in the U.S. And it's not because of homosexuals - it's because people ditch their families in pursuit of the paycheck. They move across the country for a job, leaving the extended family behind, and then wonder why the family unit breaks down. Both parents work and some work increidbly long hours - we're very "productive," you know - and then they wonder why the family unit breaks down. They leave their children in front of the TV or computer, since the grandparents were left far behind, and then wonder why the family unit breaks down. When our parents get old, we dump them in nursing homes and then moan about the family breaking down. "Family values" is one of those American myths that was completely shattered by living in Spain and seeing how they treated their children, their families and their aged.

I have to admit, I've always had problems with the Manos Blancos thing. NOBODY in this world has clean hands, and I don't feel comfortable with people claiming they do. In the context of Spain and the Basque situation, I think it's perfectly right for people to protest ETA, which has become nothing more than a mafia ring. But the Basque conflict is broader than just ETA. Are people in Madrid completely innocent in the situation? I don't think so. There's a huge disconnect between the Basque country and the capital, and I found the Madrilenos impossible to talk to about the conflict. They're right, the Basque are wrong, punto. The government and the press - based in Madrid - couch the situation in the terms they want. The people, in my mind, go along a little too easily. (It's the same, I beleive, in the Basque country.) And it's impossible to dialog or find new ways to look at a situation when you think you have clean hands - are morally superior - and the other side does not.

crystal said...


good point about the reading for today. I have a tendency to be judgemental, which I'm trying to change, but it's slow going.

But there must be times when a person should be discriminating, and call bad things bad, I think. If that were not so, no one would be working for environmentalism or for social justice. It was making a judgement that the government of El Salvador was unfair that got those Jesuit martyrs killed.

cowboyangel said...

Correction: The only people who can and should be blamed for what happened in London are the terrorists who committed such an atrocious and inhuman act.

I was responding to the argument that the government of Spain "signed death warrants." As far as blaming secondary sources, such as governments, for any of the terrorist bombings post Iraq-invasion, I blame the people I mentioned previously. Also, I would add other important culprits - Tony Blair, Hillary Clinton & Joe Lieberman (for turning worldwide opposition into cowardly aquiessence), and the New York Times and Washington Post. Hillary and Joe have much more blood on their hands than Rodrigo Zapatero or the 92% of the Spanish people who opposed the war.

Jeff said...


What happened to the last three posts or so on your blog?

You're right of course, and you bring up the good example of the Jesuit martyrs in El Salvador.

I'm not saying we are required by Jesus to be doormats. We had the right to be offended, and to say so. I guess all I'm saying is that we also have to be mindful of how we respond to things like this, and to put them in their proper perspective in the grand scheme of things. According to Jesus, this is all part of the territory he's asking us to inhabit.

Apparently these bloggers are now being assaulted with death threats and rape threats, which is just horrible. I think we can all agree here that none of us wants to add to the churn that causes that escalation of hatred and animosity to continue. As Christians, we have to look for a way to break the chain.

Jeff said...


Yeah, it’s probably a good thing that I got reminded of Luke on my own time and that you didn’t bring it up on Saturday. Things were heating up enough as it was and it might not have flown too well, especially as you were telling Mike you had no ideals and all. ;-) I don’t believe you’ve lost your ideals at all, btw…

Good points about how Spain was pretty much unanimously against the war. I was aware of that, and should have mentioned that in the post. I could have guessed that well before the lead-up to the war. When I was first there in 1985, they were going apoplectic about entering NATO. There was anti-NATO graffiti everywhere. The Spanish have always been extremely wary of US militarism. As I wrote to my friend Joseph in 2003 (see Catching Up On Old Correspondence III), I was very concerned about how isolated the US had become in world opinion, and this was before the war even started. It is very frightening to me how this administration has managed to destroy our credibility and our reputation in the world through its hubris, stubbornness and unilateralism. It’s terrifying. What a situation for my kids to grow up in.

Regarding the Church and Spain, I’m again reminded that I need to be more precise when I write things. I thought that I was noting the irony in the institutional Church continually rebuking Spanish society for all of its supposed flaws, while not necessarily noticing a wonderfully biblical act of Christian witness going on right in front of them. As for Spanish family life, I too have witnessed what you have seen and I was very much impressed by the same things, but I would just throw in a couple of countervailing trends there too. The siesta has been a holdover from life on the farm. From what I could see, people there work very long, long hours there as a result of it, often not coming home until 9:00 or 10:00 PM. In addition, Spain has one of the lowest birthrates in the world. In the late 90’s, I believe it was in fact the lowest. They treat their children very well, but I do think that it is undeniable that the fertility rate says something about the choices people are making, That makes it a little bit more difficult to hold it up as the paragon of family-life. Any population like Spain’s that has gone through decades of stagnatian and deprivation under an authoritarian system are going to go sort of hog-wild on materialism and consumerism when they finally get a chance, I think there is quite a bit of that going on in Spain and Western Europe as a whole. The populations of Western Europe are graying, and the generous cradle-to-grave benefit systems they have built there are going to be hard for them to sustain in the years ahead, especially when you couple that with the strain of taking in immigrants and guest-workers who have been difficult to assimilate and mainstream into society for one reason or another.

Your critique of US family life is dead right on the money.

You have problems with the Manos Blancos movement? You are right in pointing out that none of us has clean hands, and with what little I know about the theory and practice of nonviolence, it seems to me that it should probably be the very first thing that the nonviolent resister has to acknowledge and understand.

With the rise of the European Union, and it’s transformation into a sort of United States of Europe, I would think that some of these nationalist struggles like those of the IRA and ETA should lose quite a bit of their impetus. In a borderless Europe increasingly run out of Brussels, do these controversies and questions carry the same amount of weight as before? I’m sure the Madrilenos can be stubborn and intransigent, but I was always under the impression that the central government in recent years had been fairly generous in granting the Basque region a great deal of autonomy.

Perhaps the Madrilenos say that they are right, and the Basque are wrong, punto, and perhaps over tapas they react to terrorist outrages by saying “We should just kill all of these Basque bastards!”, but that isn’t what they actually seem to do in reality, is it? So, Manos Blancos, is it on the level, or is it really a matter of the comfortable not wanting to be disturbed?

crystal said...

You're right, Jeff :-)

cowboyangel said...

I wouldn't have used the Luke passages in an accusatory way - it was simply that it came to mind. I find it fascinating that it came up for both of us.

But I am concerned about the viciousness with which the Religious Right can strike at their enemies. It's nothing new, but I've always found it disturbing and un-Christ-like.

Hate your enemies, especially those who are Liberal. Do badly to those who hate you, viciously smear those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat to go to hell. To the person who strikes you on one cheek, kick them in the groin. Better still, if you even suspect they may try to strike your cheek, pull out your gun, which was bestowed upon you as a G-d given right - and shoot the bastards down. From the person who takes your cloak, have them arrested, and, if possible, given the death penalty. Give to everyone who asks of you, as long as they're on your side, or promise to convert to Christianity. Do unto others first what you fear they will do to you if given the chance.

That's the alternate version, which seems much more prevalent to me.

Yes, the Spanish were already wary of U.S. militarism, but I don't think that's why they were against the war. And that doesn't explain why people in Japan, Mexico, Sweeden, were so strongly against it. In fact, if my memory serves me well, I believe the only two countries in the world in which a majority of people supported the war were Israel and the U.S. People were against the war because it was wrong. It smelled bad from the start. And people around the world - in most cases hated Sadaam. The fact that the Bush administration couldn't work with the rest of the world, who after 9/11 were on our side and concerned about terrorism, still seems to me the biggest diplomatic disaster in our country's history. How he managed to turn support into disrespect so quickly truly boggles my mind. So now were are hated more than we were even during Vietnam, which means it's really, really bad, because we certainly weren't popular then. It's stunning - truly stunning what this administration has done.

I caught the irony in your statement about how Europe is perceived. I thought you had excellent points. It's funny sometimes how governments and religions go through all these highly bureaucratic convolutions in order to offer their versions of PEACE and PROSPERITY. And how upset they get when some people don't want to buy their products.

This is something that has come into the collective continental European soul, and I'm not sure of the origin. I don't know if it is a secular post-modern thing, or if it is a vaguely Christian, eastern Buddhist influenced ethos or what, but somehow in its manifestation, it is an entirely biblical, Christian response.

An inate humanity, perhaps?

Do I havee problems with the Manos Blancos movement? You know, I shouldn't judge them, because I don't know much about the "movement." If they're trying to break the cycle of violence, that's wonderful. I should say I had problems with some of the specific demonstrations in Madrid where people were waving their "clean hands." As I said, I don't think claiming clean hands is a good way to dialog in a bitter conflict. Two, I was always suspicious about their need to claim they had clean hands. Why claim something like that so vociferously? It seems to me that people usually claim clean hands when they're actually worried that their hands may not be so clean. An unconscious insecurity.

Perhaps Liam will offer another take on the subject - we had a pretty good debate about it at the time. I still have scars from the broken wine bottle.

Yes, Madrid has given the Basque country a lot of autonomy. I'm not going to takesides here, because I honestly don't understand the situation. Partly because I was never able to engage in a reasonable discussion about it. Only when I moved back to NY and met a Basque here wqho hated ETA did I get some interesting other points. I only meant to point out the inability of both sides to converse in a certain way about it.

Jeff said...


Hate your enemies, especially those who are Liberal. Do badly to those who hate you, viciously smear those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat to go to hell. To the person who strikes you on one cheek, kick them in the groin. Better still, if you even suspect they may try to strike your cheek, pull out your gun, which was bestowed upon you as a G-d given right - and shoot the bastards down. From the person who takes your cloak, have them arrested, and, if possible, given the death penalty. Give to everyone who asks of you, as long as they're on your side, or promise to convert to Christianity. Do unto others first what you fear they will do to you if given the chance.

Hey, that sounds like a disciple of Supply Side Jesus. :-)

Are the white hands supposed to represent innocence? Is that the meaning of the symbolism? I'd like to read Liam's take on it. I'd like to read Joseph's too, if he should happen to have time to visit.

BTW, regarding the "signing of the death warrant", I hear you very clearly, and I'm not blaming the Spanish people. I do think, sadly, that governments need to be careful in their timing of how they do things, because in the warped logic of the killers, the bombings had exactly the desired effect, and like-minded people were able to continue with their syllogisms from there.

cowboyangel said...

Not a fan of Al Franken, but that was pretty good. Hadn't seen it before. Yeah, I don't think I'm the first one to feel this disconnect between some current politico-religious movements and the Gospel.

My understanding at the time was that, yes, the manos blancos were manos limpias. That was certainly the attitude in the air. Perhaps it's changed. I didn't even know Manos Blancos had become an organization.

Personally, I prefer Mano Negra.

For someone with no ideals, I sure have a lot of damn opnioins, don't I?!?!

I should say that my relationship with ideals has changed significantly.