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July 9, 2005

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Concert in memoriam in Rome:
Marla Ruzicka and the victims of war

July 9, 2005

War is not only the most highly organized form of violence, it is also the most systematically executed, involving virtually all other forms of physical violence. Until the Second World War … most of the violence suffered in modern warfare took place on the battlefield, and civilian populations were not major targets of military action. During the second half of the twentieth century, in spite of international agreements to control the destructiveness and savagery of war, the balance shifted and civilian causalities now largely outnumber the military… It has been recognized that the institution of war, the core of the war system and the centre of the web of competitive and adversarial relationships that comprise the culture of war and violence, is – as are all other cultural institutions – a human invention. It is a product of the human imagination, and the human imagination can replace it.

Betty A. Reardon, Education for a culture of peace, Paris, UNESCO, 2001.

Last night, in the Valdese Church on Piazza Cavour in Rome, a tribute was paid to the innocent victims of war. The choral group Todavía Canta, admirably directed by Raimundo Pereira Martínez, performed Cuban songs, Giacomo Carissimi’s oratorio Jephthah, and an original piece by Mr Pereira Martínez entitled Proemium ad Iephtis Oratorium. The concert was held one day after the bomb explosions in the London transport system, and within the context of a continuing war in Afghanistan and Iraq, with their hundreds and hundreds of civilian casualties.

Mr Pereira Martínez introduced the pieces with a brief statement drawing the comparison between the innocent victim slain by Jephthah, caught by his own rash vow to sacrifice to God the first person he meets should he win a military victory over his enemies (and he meets his own daughter), and the peace activist Marla Ruzicka, the young American killed in Baghdad in April 2005 as she was carrying out the work of her humanitarian organization CIVIC Worldwide, helping the civilian victims of war.

The Old Testament story of Jephthah is recounted in the Book of Judges 10, 6–18 and 11, 1–40. A “mighty warrior”, Jephthah engages battle with the Ammonites over a land dispute. The king of the Ammonites claims that the Israelites took his land when they arrived after their exile in Egypt and the passage through the Sea of Reeds, and he wants them to give the land back peaceably; the Israelites claim that Yahweh has given them the land. As neither side will listen to the other, Jephthah

made a vow to Yahweh, ‘If you deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then the first person to meet me from the door of my house when I return in triumph from fighting the Ammonites shall belong to Yahweh, and I will offer him up as a holocaust.’ Jephthah marched against the Ammonites to attack them, and Yahweh delivered them into his power. […] As Jephthah returned to his house at Mizpah, his daughter came out from it to meet him….

There may be a veritable historical incident behind the story recounted in Judges; this particular story is not what concerns us here. We are warned by the Proemium ad Iephtis Oratorium that the oratorio we are about to listen to is not just the story of one isolated man named Jephthah. We are in the presence of a story as old as creation, repeated over and over and over again with the same painful result. Human beings rush blindly into organized violence in the name of justice, or divine right, or peacekeeping, or protecting the world; the casus belli changes but the violence is perennial and always the same. And the first person injured is always an innocent victim.

We see that, tragically, the one injured in the war is “Jephthah” himself. Acting unconsciously as a pure product of the “culture of war” and in the context of what he thinks is divine imperative, he reaps what he has sown. The sword he thought he was using in the name of his “god” to smite “enemies” is the same sword with which he will have to kill his own child.

On the historical level, the story of this “mighty warrior” is terrible – in the true sense of the word. If we read it as allegory, we shudder to watch leaders who think they are respecting “gods” but who, driven by their own false gods, invoke armed conflict to resolve differences throughout the world. But as a symbol, does not Jephthah rather stand for each of us, as we conveniently use the excuse that our enemies are “outside” us, instead of facing up to the anger, hostility and darkness that we bear within ourselves? Instead of integrating and using the energy within us, we destroy it – with swords, with bombs, with bloodshed and horror. In a loop that never ends.

Jephthah made his vow five thousand years ago – and Marla died yesterday.

Many thanks to Raimundo and his valiant group of soloists, musicians and choir for reminding us that an act of the human imagination can be the first step in changing our eternal culture of war. The performance was outstanding, with an exceptional vocal and musical quality. The interpretation of songs, poem and oratorio demonstrated a fine understanding of both phrasing and drama; the excellent tempo and expression served the lyrics perfectly in a harmonious blend of intelligence and emotion. We hope to hear from Todavía Canta in the near future for more concerts. Thanks also to the Chiesa Valdese in Piazza Cavour Antonio Adamo for the hospitality, and to all who supported this event.

J. Crews


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