In a recent interview with a national newspaper the Israeli writer and journalist Gideon Levy said that the reason he tries to tell the truth about how bad things are for those living in Palestine is to prevent a situation in which people in Israel could say “we didn’t know”. Too often “we didn’t know” becomes an excuse for a failure to speak up for the plight of others. Tom Paxton, the American folk singer, wrote a song about people in different situations who claimed not to have known . . . the burgomeister in World War 2 Germany who didn’t know about the concentration camp on the edge of town, the congregation in Southern USA, singing a hymn in a church of white: “. . . we didn’t see a thing, you can’t hold us to blame we didn’t know.”
The writer of the book of Proverbs (24:11,12) challenges us to rescue those “being led away to death” and reminds us that if we say “we knew nothing about this”, God who weighs the heart, perceives it and will hold each of us accountable for what we have done (or by implication not done).
Why should knowing make a difference? Would people care more if they knew? Although knowing does not guarantee that action to change things for others will follow, it often does. Knowing about the plight of others helped inspire William Wilberforce’s anti-slavery campaign and knowing the issues facing prisoners as a result of being in prison himself inspired former cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken to campaign for the needs of prisoners. And it inspires most of us to give something to Famine and Disaster relief.
One of our problems in this country has been what we have not known or chosen not to know about the experiences of those who are our ‘others’. What things do we not know or choose not to know? Whatever their failings and costs, various recent inquiries and reports have gone some way to helping inform us of just a few of the stories of others who have suffered hurt and loss. More stories are crying out to be heard – on all sides. And as we face 10 years of significant anniversaries we need to familiarize ourselves not just with our side of the history but with that history as experienced by the other, whoever they may be.
What action we might take when we do know will always be challenging but saying we didn’t know is a cop out. We should make it our business to find out and could start, for example, by occasionally reading the other community’s preferred morning newspaper.
Noel McCune is a semi-retired Child Psychiatrist and is Chairperson of ContemporaryChristianity.net