I have always liked the Olympics — the extraordinary athletic achievement, the competition, the drama. It is a time of celebration and hope.
However, since the light cast by the Olympic torch will brighten our lives for a relatively short time, it is worth asking: Do we have the resolve to keep the flame aglow in our quest for a more just and humane world? Will the flame spark the fires of freedom or will it cast a shadow of tyranny and oppression?
As hundreds of millions of people watch the Beijing Summer Olympics this month, these underlying questions will be present.
The Olympics are not an island in time, a respite from our challenging, turbulent and violent world. The games are inseparable from the personal, communal, national and global issues that permeate our lives on a daily basis.
In 1972, Palestinian terrorists shattered the myth of separation when they murdered 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the Munich Olympic Games. From that catastrophic day on, it became impossible to separate real life from the Olympic Games.
For Jews, there is never a time to forget worldly concerns. Even at a wedding, we break a glass to remind us of all that is shattered and hurting in our world.
Serving as the host country for the Olympics bears great honor as well as responsibility. The three weeks of the Olympics are a time to celebrate athletic excellence, China’s rich cultural and ethical heritage, and a rare feeling of unity among nations. But it is also a time to remind the Chinese government of their responsibility to address the human rights violations in Tibet, Burma and Sudan, as well as in their own country.
Confucius’ teachings have infused Chinese values for centuries, providing ethical guidelines for society. At the heart of his teachings is the principle of shu, or reciprocity. This notion reflects the ethical value that we have an ongoing responsibility and a moral duty to other human beings.
Regrettably, as seems to be the case with Sudan, the Chinese government has forgotten the many teachings of its greatest sage. The Chinese government remains inextricably linked with the Sudanese government, which is being held accountable for the genocide in Darfur that has killed more than 400,000 people and displaced about 2.5 million others.
Over the past decade, China has invested more than $10 billion in commercial and capital projects in Sudan. China is also Sudan’s No. 1 small-arms dealer, accounting for 90 percent of the small weapons imported into the country since 2004. These are the same weapons used by the Janjaweed militia and other rebel forces to slaughter thousands of people in Darfur. China remains Sudan’s staunch ally at the United Nations, steadfastly opposing any sanctions proposed by the Security Council.
This genocide is now entering its sixth year. The people of Darfur cannot wait for three weeks while the Olympics are being played. Their need for food, water, medicine and security is immediate. Their very survival as a people continues to be threatened every day — before, during and after the Olympics, unless the Chinese government acts responsibly.
The Chinese government could make a tremendous difference if it chose to act in the Confucian way. Will the Olympic torch guide them to justice and freedom or to tyranny and oppression?
In the Jewish tradition, the teaching “Do not stand idly by” is not a suggestion — it is an operative principle. Wherever there is suffering, it is the Jewish ethic to pursue justice passionately. Today, in sub-Saharan Africa sit the dispossessed of the world. They yearn for the horrors to stop. They yearn to return home.
Confucian philosophy and Judaism teach that our everyday acts do make a profound difference. There are actions that we can take at this time: Request the Chinese government (by writing or calling its consulate) to publicly condemn genocide, and pressure Sudan to accept immediate and full deployment of the African Union-Union Nations peacekeeping forces; contact NBC and ask it to increase the coverage of Darfur; make a contribution to groups actively involved in providing humanitarian aid in Darfur and Chad.
As the Olympic torch burns so brightly over Beijing and provides a glowing symbol of athletic achievement, the hope of our faith and of so much of humanity is that it also brings some light into a world where there is so much darkness.
It is a candle of hope that we might one day celebrate the human achievement of making this a more just world for all people. It is a flame that burns insides each of us, knowing that no celebration is pure, even the Olympics, while so many of God’s creations are living in the depths of despair.
Perhaps the extraordinary athletic achievements we will celebrate will spawn a renewed resolve that we can achieve just as much on the field of human rights.
Rabbi Lee Bycel lives in Albany and is the executive director of the western region of American Jewish World Service (www.ajws.org). Since 2004 he has made several humanitarian trips to Darfur and Chad.