Essay
Comment
Middle East
8 min read

A peacemaker’s guide to keeping hope alive

Amid continuing despair around the Israel-Hamas war, former diplomat Todd Deatherage shares the practices of the peacemaker.

Todd  is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Telos Group. It forms communities of American peacemakers across lines of difference and conflict, including Israel/Palestine. 

Two people down a table turn and listen to someone closer talk, against a wall mural.
Peace taking at a Telos event.

The world seems enveloped in darkness right now. The list of things that hide and extinguish the light is long, but for many of us it is the ongoing war in the Middle East that casts shadows of gloom and foreboding over our days and sometimes our sleepless nights.  

As I write, Palestinian men, women and children in Gaza continue to die daily from unrelenting bombardment. Treatable injuries and illnesses are now fatal. Many lack access to food and clean water. About 134 Israelis remain in captivity. The West Bank teeters on the brink as ideological settlers pursue an agenda of harassment and displacement of Palestinian villagers. 

Israelis and Palestinians remain deeply traumatized people and are transferring their untransformed traumas onto each other in endless cycles of conflict that are brutal to both, though glaringly asymmetrical. The rest of the world cheers and rationalizes and mourns and protests and marches and divides itself as the body count in Gaza soars.  

‘Hope is not the same thing as optimism, hope is not a feeling. Hope is what you do.’ 

Mitri Raheb

Even for those of us watching from a distance, despair is unavoidable, and in many ways, the only rational response. Who dares speak of hope amidst such horror?  And yet, without hope we are all lost. Hope is essential for life and flourishing--a life devoid of it is only existence. But how do we face such a brutal reality and look to the future with any sense of a better one? Is it even possible?   

Hope is possible, even in such a time as this, but only if we define it correctly. The Palestinian theologian Mitri Raheb says that hope is not the same thing as optimism, hope is not a feeling. Hope is what you do.  We push back against violence, hatred and fear by living and acting in hopeful ways. Daily acts of resistance against injustice and brutality protect and nurture our humanity and open up space for our own transformation. As we allow ourselves to be transformed we can be better agents of healing in the world around us. Hope is what you do.  It is an active, intentional, clear-eyed yet generous way of living in the world.  

The physicist Niels Bohr said the opposite of a fact is a falsehood but the opposite of a truth may be another profound truth. 

And it’s important to connect hope and action in a moment like this in particular because the horror we’re witnessing has a context. This is not a natural disaster.  We're not where we are simply because bad things happen, but because we brought ourselves here.  Because too many have believed the lie that freedom and security come through violence, and that equality and peace can come via ideologies of exclusion and religious or ethnic superiority.  We have accepted the fiction that our lives are not interrelated with those of our neighbors.  And we have imagined that inequitable systems of subjugation and control can be sustained forever.  

And so we keep hope alive by embracing the truth and grounding ourselves in the conviction that the death and destruction of this war will only lead to more of the same. Our words and our actions in this moment can be demonstrations of hope when they are rooted in a steely conviction that the horror of October 7th did not make Palestinians freer, and nothing that’s happened since is making Israel, or any of us, safer. This is how we got into this, not how we get out of it.  Violence begets violence begets violence.  We act in hope by calling for a ceasefire and the release of hostages. And ultimately we set our sights on a new reality in which Palestinians and Israelis can enjoy freedom, dignity and security in equal measure.   

  

Here are some practices of the peacemaker that not only represent acts of hope but that open the possibility to bring about change in us and change in the world. 

Listen to understand. Many of us live within the sound of only one narrative of the shared reality of Israelis and Palestinians.  Listening to understand those whose stories are new to us is a first step in nurturing the empathy that will allow us to see the humanity of all.  

Listening to those with whom we disagree, not to combat or argue, but to truly understand has the potential to sharpen what we know and believe even as it holds open the possibility of lowering the temperature between us and the person being seen and heard. And this may expose that behind our disagreement may be something deeper.  (Hint: It’s often fear.)   

Learn to hold experiences in tension. The physicist Niels Bohr said the opposite of a fact is a falsehood but the opposite of a truth may be another profound truth.  Palestinians and Israelis each have their own connections to the same piece of land, their unique histories and experiences, and any honest peacemaking effort great or small has to hold these experiences in tension, not as equally true, but as the things that must be understood and dealt with in any effort at conflict resolution. 

Peacemakers know the importance of centering the voices of those most vulnerable. In this case, that has to begin today with the millions of displaced Palestinian civilians in Gaza, the families of the hostages, the Israelis who’ve fled their homes in the south and north of their country, and the Palestinians trapped and apprehensive in the West Bank fearing all this is coming their way.  

Peacemakers also acknowledge that each of us has agency.  We may think our influence is small, but we have communities and circles of friends, we have elected leaders who are meant to be responsive to our concerns.  There are always things we can do, and the cumulative effect of many small actions can bring change.  

At a time of such horror and atrocity, casting blame is an easy and natural response.  But what can’t be overlooked for those who want to create hope is the necessity of doing the honest work of self-interrogation. The persistence of antisemitism for centuries and its alarming rise in the present, coupled with the growth of anti-Arab and Islamophobic sentiments, force us each not only to examine our internal biases and those that exist within our own communities, but also to confront them.  Credible voices from within our communities are needed, to borrow from Jesus of Nazareth, to point out the proverbial logs in our own eyes so that we might see more clearly to help our neighbor remove the splinters from theirs.  

Part of the work of self-interrogation is also to own our complicity in creating the conditions we see today.  For too long our governments in the West have acted as if the blockade of Gaza was somehow sustainable, and that Israel can perpetually occupy the West Bank with no political horizon for a better reality.  And in recent years, the Americans have pursued a fiction that Arab-Israeli normalization could proceed with abandon while the Palestinians fall ever deeper into Israeli control and their own internal political dysfunction.   

The fact that we are a party to this conflict---our implication in it--- also creates the opportunity and the imperative to transform our involvement into morally grounded policies and interventions that create greater space for the work of peacemaking and conflict resolution. Which leads us to advocacy as an essential practice of peacemaking  

He told us the peacemakers are blessed. His universal invitation to live as his ambassadors of reconciliation and healing still echoes down through the centuries as a calling the world so desperately needs. 

  

In the West, as an atrocity of historic proportions is being perpetrated right now, in real time, in our lifetime, we have to call on our leaders to end the ruination of Gaza. To work to return the hostages. To truly commit our governments to cease being peacetalkers and to become peacemakers. To use our influence to create the conditions for true security, honored dignity and freedom for Palestinians and Israelis alike, in equal measure.  To support diplomatic initiatives, political arrangements and grass roots efforts that are all oriented toward their mutual flourishing,  

For people of Christian faith, these dark days have now taken us into our season of Advent.  The American Episcopal theologian Fleming Rutledge says “Advent always begins in the dark.” But it ends with the arrival of God in our midst, God with those in the ravaged kibbutzim of southern Israel.  God with those in the bombed out wreckage of the cities and refugee camps of Gaza. And God with those cowering in fear in their homes in Bethlehem, the very place where the Christian story begins.  In a normal year we sing, some years deeply from our hearts and our sadness, 'O Come O Come, Emmanuel, and rescue us'.  This year that cry is nearly guttural for many of us. But it is a cry rooted in a belief that God has not forsaken us in our hatreds and our violence and our inhumanity.  He is a God of transformation and invites us to join him in the work of healing and repair. Jesus came to make the world more merciful and just, to teach us to love our enemies, and to show us how to care for the weak and the vulnerable. He told us the peacemakers are blessed. His universal invitation to live as his ambassadors of reconciliation and healing still echoes down through the centuries as a calling the world so desperately needs.  This Advent, let us live as agents of hope as we work for a future in Israel/Palestine---and in our own communities-- in which all can flourish in justice, security, freedom and dignity.   

  

Article
Comment
Politics
10 min read

‘Let your yeah be yeah’: when style supplants substance

The frustrating language of politics.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

Rishi Sunak
Campaign slogans.
Newzeepk, X.

You know what it’s like. A catchy piece of music is going round and round in your head. You can’t stop it. You don’t know where it came from. And, if you did originally like it, you find yourself quickly going off it.  

Some call it ‘sticky music’, while others have labelled the phenomenon as ‘stuck song syndrome’. I prefer the more evocative ‘earworm’ as it ably expresses the experience of something both invasive and undesirable. 

On this occasion the tune was accompanied by its refrain, ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. Round and round and round it went. It’s not a song I know well, and I couldn’t even remember who sang it.  

Thankfully a quick google identified it as a top 10 single from 1971 by the Jamaican reggae trio, The Pioneers. Unfortunately, discovering that did not make it go away. 

It was not rocket science to understand what was going on inside my head. It was the first week after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had called the election and the campaigning had begun in earnest.  

Now it’s not that my instant reaction was to do a ‘Brenda from Bristol’. Brenda, you will remember, became an internet sensation in 2017 for her memorable outburst when Teresa May called a snap election. She exclaimed, ‘You must be joking, not another one!’ No, I’m to be found more at the aficionado end of the political spectrum. 

Still, I have been finding myself increasingly exasperated over recent years. I don’t think my irritation is just about getting older and becoming more grumpy. But I do find myself frustrated by what politicians do with language and the words they choose to use. I’m annoyed by the strategies they adopt as they justify themselves and the rhetorical devices they surreptitiously employ to bolster an argument. 

Inside I find a deep longing for people to say what they mean and mean what they say. Is it too much to ask? Of course, there’s the root in my psyche, ‘let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. 

It’s not that this is some kind of naïve desire for politics to become what it never can be - some kind of genteel, educated, middle-class debating society.  

The very nature of democracy has passionate argument at its very heart. We don’t wrangle over what we agree on and hold in common. Democracy obliges our leaders to be in a mindset of perpetual persuasion towards us. 

No, for me, the nub of the problem is when emotive words are chosen to make a point that the substance of an argument can’t. Or, when rhetorical sleight of hand is deployed on an unsuspecting audience, much like the misdirection of a magician in creating the illusion of magic. 

Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

This is nothing new. It has been a part of our public life in the West since the classical era of Aristotle, Plato and Cicero. It was the English rhetorician Ralph Lever who, in the sixteenth century, attempted to translate the key concepts of Aristotelian logic into English in his The Arte of Reason, rightly termed, Witcraft. That is, ‘witcraft’ – the art, skill or craft of the mind, NOT ‘witchcraft’: though some might see that as an apt descriptor of the dark arts that classical rhetoric can enable. 

Aristotle, however, was clear in his understanding that the function of rhetorical skills was not to persuade in and of themselves, but rather to make available the means of persuasion. The substance of an argument was always to be more important than the manner in which it was communicated. 

It is hardly a revelation that the world of contemporary comms has been birthed in a brave new world of technology. As the American media theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman pointed out, the advent of TV introduced entertainment as the defining principle of communication and what it takes to hold our attention. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business was Postman’s 1985 era-defining commentary of how things have changed. Gone are the 2-hour long political ‘stump’ speeches and hour-long church sermons. Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

The speed of the internet, the ubiquity of social media and the omniscience of the algorithms have only served to distil and intensify the phenomena that Postman was concerned about. That recent history has witnessed the success that has accompanied the media experience and understanding of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, only serves to underline the prescience of Postman’s observations.  

The ability to cut through the surrounding cacophony, engage an audience and then hold their attention long enough to communicate something of value is challenging to the nth degree. This has merely served to ramp up the intensity, exaggeration and immediacy of political speech. To impact us it must evoke an emotional response. In this anxiety and fear are the most effective drivers. 

Former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was quite clear in his assessment that ‘a week is a long time in politics’. We might now consider a day, or even an hour, to be the operative chronological measure. The news cycle can turn very quickly indeed. 

Yet the underlying dynamics of communication remain. Rhetoric remains supreme. Political machines have become the masters of ‘spin’ and of the art of gaming the opportunities, language and positioning presented by contemporary media. 

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’.

All this is in a context in which it is estimated that those in middle age have consumed an average of 30-40,000 hours of TV and some 250,000 advertisements. Britain is a media savvy society. Yet for all of this sophistication in media consumption, I remain fearful of how aware my fellow citizens are of the techniques that inform contemporary political messaging. 

The former Speaker of the House of Representatives in the United States, Newt Gingrich, provides a helpful case study. Back in 1994 he produced a notorious memo to Republican candidates for Congress entitled ‘Language: A Key Mechanism of Control’.  

Following extensive testing in focus groups and scrutiny by PR specialists he highlighted around 200 words for Republicans to memorise and use. There were positive words to associate with their own programme and negative ones to use against their opponents.  

The positive words he advocated included: 

opportunity… control… truth… moral… courage… reform… prosperity… children… family… we/us/our… liberty… principle(d)… success… empower(ment)… peace… rights… choice/choose… fair…  

By contrast, when addressing their opponents: 

decay… failure … collapse(ing)… crisis… urgent(cy)… destructive… sick… pathetic… lie… they/them… betray… consequences… hypocrisy… threaten… waste… corruption… incompetent… taxes… disgrace… cynicism… machine… 

Careful choice of words can then be layered with other strategies to construct a highly sophisticated political message.  

At a most basic level come the ever popular ‘guilt by association’ and its twin sibling ‘virtue by connexion’. Are migrants portrayed as ‘sponging off the benefits system’ or ‘filling recruitment shortfalls in the NHS, social care and industry’? Is British culture under threat of being overwhelmed or enriched by cultural diversity? 

Integral to this use of language are the various methods of ‘virtue signalling’ to a particular audience and the infamous ‘dog-whistle’ subjects and phrases to call them to heel. Tropes and labelling also play their part. On labelling, the nineteenth century statesman John Morley powerfully denigrated the practice by suggesting that it saved ‘talkative people the trouble of thinking’.   

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’. By implication who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’? We should be aware too when more general arguments are made that leave us, as listeners, to fill in the blanks. This hidden rhetorical manoeuvre gets us ‘onside’ by leading us to intuitively believe that the speaker agrees with us. Along the way they haven’t defined what ‘responsible government’, or ‘critical priorities’ or ‘British values’ actually are. Instead, they have left for us to supply our own definition, ensuring our agreement and support. 

To these can be added the ever more common practice of ‘gaslighting’, where information or events are manipulated to get people to doubt their own judgment, perception and sense of reality. And then there’s my favourite that the Urban Dictionary defines as a ‘Schrodinger’s douchebag’. Especially popular among populist politicians, this is where an outrageous statement is made and the speaker waits for the audience to respond. Only retrospectively do they declare whether they meant what they said or were only ‘just joking’. 

It's perhaps no surprise that Rhetorical Political Analysis is actually a thing. Academics study it and political journalists use it to sniff out any hint of obfuscation. Depressingly, in the media, this frequently descends into an unholy game of ‘bait and trap’. Politicians, for their part, then become much more guarded as they seek to side-step a ‘gotcha’ move, whether merited or not. 

… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications.

So where does that leave the aspiration of ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’? It may be surprising to some that The Pioneers’ song about a troubled love affair is directly quoting Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. But Jesus’ focus is not about romance here. 

What he is talking about is truthfulness, authenticity and integrity. Say what you mean and mean what you say. For Jesus, truth and truthfulness was at the very centre of his own identity. Indeed, in Christian theology Jesus is the ‘word made flesh’, the ‘exact representation’ of who God is and what he is like. Jesus then advocates what he embodies: an alignment and integration of who we are, with what we say and what we do. 

This has to be the foundation for authenticity and integrity. These are the very principles that are so highly prized in the political arena, and yet so quickly abandoned in the maelstrom of the conflicting demands of public life.  

Jesus advocated living a truthful life, not least because of its liberating outcomes, ‘… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications. Free from the fear of being found out or the implications of the ever-deepening holes to be dug. Free to be ourselves and have all the bits of our lives fit together as one. 

This has to be the principle to live by, the standard to benchmark, the way of life to aspire to. It’s no coincidence that integrity and honesty are two of the seven Nolan principles that inform the UK government’s Committee on Standards in Public Life

But the fact is we know the world to be a complicated place. We are not always the people we long to be. In the church’s liturgy the prayer of confession calls out our challenges. We miss the mark ‘through negligence, through weakness, [and] through our own deliberate fault.’ 

The reality is that, while we aspire to be the best that we can be, we also need to be alive to alternative realities. Our political processes can throw up flawed actors, bad actors and nefarious actors. They present very differently, yet we must always read through what is being communicated to access what is being said. 

Life is complicated. There are many different ways to legitimately tackle the issues that we face as a country. Always there are trade-offs. Frequently the future turns out to be different to what has been predicted. Ultimately there are too many variables. 

The 2024 General Election has proven to be refreshingly different. Neither Rishi Sunak nor Keir Starmer are as natural or charismatic in front of a camera as some of their predecessors.  

It rained on the Prime Minister when he announced the election without an umbrella and the day after took him to the Belfast shipyard where the Titanic was built. Such gaffes are reassuringly human. Labour’s tragically cack-handed approach to Diane Abbott and whether she could stand for election as MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington where she faithfully served for 37 years is in a similar vein. 

Yet, through it all it is worth noting Laura Kuenssberg’s comments for the BBC. 

Both leaders inspire unusual loyalty among their teams. They are often praised by those who work with them as being warmer than they appear on camera: staffers describe them as decent family men, who take their jobs incredibly seriously and work incredibly hard. 

I find this remarkably encouraging. In the meantime, that song keeps going round in my head. 

‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’.  

Please make it stop.