Guest columnist Rev. Peter Kakos: The saving grace of college protests

People hold their ground near a main gate at Columbia University in New York on April 30 as New York City police officers move to clear the area after a building was taken over by protesters.

People hold their ground near a main gate at Columbia University in New York on April 30 as New York City police officers move to clear the area after a building was taken over by protesters. AP

By THE REV. PETER KAKOS

Published: 05-21-2024 5:55 PM

 

What, after all, is the purpose of higher education, if not to debunk hateful myths, that continue, like Furies, to haunt us with debasing beliefs of our fellow human beings?

Racism, alive and as ugly as ever, leads the ruthless madness, conjuring up the worst traits of millions, stoking unfounded fears, alarming and mobilizing, against those invading hordes of darker skins soon to outnumber the only ones with God-ordained ownership to America.

If unbiased education (from the Latin, meaning to be led out of cave-like darkness), can do anything, it is to equip students to believe and act upon the strength of the reality that the human race is — and will always be — singular. When used in a plural sense, “races” mistakenly envisions an alienated separation that cannot regard the other to be of equal worth or merit, creating a culture that boasts over something like “white makes right!”

In 1989, during the first Intifada, I made a pilgrimage to Israel and Jordan, staying a week near the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem. Waiting a moment while Linda stopped into a small jewelry store in the Jewish Quarter, I engaged in conversation with a young Israeli with an American accent on a cigarette break.

When I mentioned feeling sorry about the “Troubles,” he quickly responded: “Ah, Palestinians! They are mules. You have to beat them down every so often!” He flicked his butt down onto the ancient stone, intentionally twisting his shoe to crush the last of its life. Not five minutes later, in a narrow, shadowy alley, we passed a thin swarthy elder wearing the tell-tale keffiyeh, patiently pulling his burdened donkey.

I bless the college students nearby and nationwide, focused on calling our attention to the desperate need for cease-fire; hostages of all sides released; and resumption of aid from deliveries blocked from entering Gaza. (While our U.S. completes its dock, many ponder the possibility of another objective of Tel Aviv: deportation.)

Freedom chants across campuses wake us up to the bedrock truth of the oneness of humanity. To view it otherwise is to invite nothing less than the destructiveness of violence, sparing no victim of all its horror; to understand that the bombing of civilians is the murder, not only of one’s own, but oneself. An insight of the 12th-century German mystic Hildegard of Bingen speaks volumes today to Tel Aviv: “Arrogance rushes to its own destruction.”

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Students demonstrate to insist that we, as a nation and world, live out that unitive truth, enabling humanity to be saved from itself. No longer able to sit back and continue to observe with wrenching sorrow the blitzkrieg over Gaza and wanton killing in the West Bank, campuses rightfully make demands to halt the excruciating anguish of shattered families, now herded like sheep — their pasture being starvation — from one end of uninhabitable Gaza to the other.

For the sake of all we hold dear, from Smith to Harvard, our learned young deserve a voice at the table of investment boards, not in the futile belief that they can solve our global problems, but rather to shine the light of a saving grace upon the perverse and pervasive military industry, so embedded in our economy and retirement plans, that any other way would be considered a grave risk well to our lifestyle.

This sheer madness and its disastrous consequences are what our young adults deplore, and rightly so.

You can zip-tie them; throw them to the ground; and wield batons to break up their tents, symbolically in solidarity with Gazans bombed out of their homes, but you cannot, and never will, silence their hope in a restorative compassion.

Take it from this one senior who was assaulted on his Columbia campus by a plainclothes officer on a spring night in 1968, when hundreds were then arrested for occupying the likes of Hamilton Hall. He locked arms with faculty and classmates until set upon by the NYPD, their brass knuckles hidden from cameras. All this for railing against the nightmarish insanity of Vietnam — from which his good friends came home — in caskets by the planeload.

The Rev. Peter Kakos lives in Northampton.